Eight years after John Walker stopped taking college classes at Murray State University in western Kentucky, he returned as a mature graduate student at the University of Wisconsin.
But Walker’s path to UW had many detours. He worked in Kentucky as a local reporter, then moved to Germany to work on a dairy farm. When Walker returned to the United States, he traveled 2,700 miles along the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada and eventually ended up in St. Louis as a busboy.
It wasn’t until he was in New Zealand on a mountain overlooking a lake that he wondered “what next?” that he realized he wanted to go back to school.
Walker began his freshman year in 2007 just as the Great Recession engulfed the United States and in 2012 graduated with degrees in journalism and anthropology. In the fall of 2020, while in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, Walker began his first year as a graduate student in the UW Library’s Information Science program, hosted within the UW iSchool at the School of Computer, Data and Information Sciences.
“A lot of people — at least in my program who aren’t traditional — are still working, or they’ve already had their families and they’re only doing part-time classes and they’re not as involved,” Walker said. “I came back as a full-time student, and that makes it very different for me from other people who are usually my age.”
Walker is not alone in this unique educational journey, as returning students and non-traditional students flock to earn degrees as the pandemic continues to escalate.
At UW, Adult Career and Special Student Services offers special and guest student admissions, educational planning, and career services for special/non-traditional students like Scala.
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According to National Center for Education Statistics.
Tuition fees for individual students are calculated based on a number of factors, including academic program, number of credits taken, and residency status.
“[Special students] may include high school students wishing to take classes at UW-Madison, auditors, and everyone in between,” said Associate Dean and Director of Continuing Studies Martin Rouse.
Mature students are generally classified as 24 or older and returning to school for a variety of reasons, Rouse said.
Like Walker, some seniors want to finish what they started after years in the workforce. Currently, UW’s oldest undergraduate is 73 years old.
“Often, [special students] never finished, want to come back and want to learn more about something that interests them,” Rouse said.
Rouse thinks other adults, still in the middle of their careers, come back because they want a better job that requires extra credentials to help themselves and their families.
Non-traditional students face unique challenges in higher education, with factors such as fear, children, struggles with technology and a lack of confidence potentially complicating their experience at UW, Rouse said. . He also said there may be more pressing financial issues for adult students who are busy with work and family life and struggle to complete the credit load required to qualify. financial aid.
“There are certainly many times when I feel very distant from the experiences of – or my lack of experiences [compared to] — my peers,” Walker said. “And that’s fine. It’s not a bad thing, and I’m just trying to find a good synthesis of these relationships and understand that everyone is traveling, in different places.
Compared to other universities, UW is more traditional in the sense that the percentage of non-traditional students enrolled is significantly lower, Rouse said. According to NCESchanges in enrollment can be indicative of the success—or failure—of institutions in reaching less traditional students and attracting them to non-traditional programs.
Before the pandemic, the dropout rate for non-traditional students after their freshman year of college was more than double the rates for traditional students. Mature students may face the additional impacts of COVID-19 on their jobs and family life, and mental health issues also appear to be more prevalent among non-traditional students.
But the COVID-19 pandemic has led to the introduction of more online courses and programs at UW and other universities across the country. Adults who have taken on the responsibility of helping their children homeschool or have jobs that keep them busy throughout the day may find online education beneficial.
“Offering more online degrees works really well for non-traditional students,” Rouse said.
Adult Career Services and Special Student Services Coordinator Ace Hilliard said he hopes to see UW expand into online programs to increase accessibility to higher education. Hilliard said online classes appeal to different populations, noting the pandemic could bring adults back to school in pursuit of a career change or exploration.
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“Being in jobs related to hospitality, medical, teaching… can be detrimental to well-being,” Hilliard said when asked if the COVID-19 pandemic has led to an influx of people. special and returning adult students.
Walker, who started his first year of graduate school during the pandemic, said he was unable to get the full UW experience because most of his degree was online, so that the postponement of other programs such as Wisconsin Hoofers, an outdoor club, and in-person events at the unions.
The ACSSS has also set up the Ready for the badger program — which Rouse called a “forgiveness program” — that specializes in helping adult students over 25 and veterans of all ages transfer to UW when they otherwise couldn’t . To qualify for the program, students must have already completed 24 credits of college work and taken two cumulative years of schooling.
The program typically requires students to complete 12 credits of UW coursework over two to four semesters with a minimum 3.0 grade point average. Upon completion, students may be eligible for admission as a transfer student. To date, Rouse said the Badger Ready program has helped 58 participants over the past three years with six graduating.
Editor Arushi Gupta contributed to this report.