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A fellow student in one of Nancy Constable's classes at N.C. State had a habit of signing the attendance log and then slipping out of the class. The student apparently thought other students would ignore her deceptive behavior.
Everyone did - except Constable.
"I said to her, 'Do your parents know what you're doing?'" Constable recalls telling the student. "If I were your parents, I would cut you off financially! That's why you do it because it's not your money."
The girl was a little taken aback but soon began staying for the whole class.
Being a scold is one of the ways in which Constable, who is 37 and has a daughter almost old enough for college, sticks out at N.C. State. But the Northwest Raleigh resident is part of a growing trend - older students enrolling in or returning to college.
Constable is among more than 1,900 undergraduate students aged 25 and older enrolled this spring at State, up from about 1,500 last spring, according to university planners. That's an increase from 7.1 percent to 9 percent of total undergraduate enrollment.
The trend is nationwide. A report last year from The Lumina Foundation for Education, an Indianapolis-based group that seeks to expand access to higher education, cited economic factors as the primary reason.
"The current economic downturn is funneling hundreds of thousands of over-25 Americans into postsecondary education, and that trend is sure to intensify as the global, knowledge-based economy demands workers with ever higher levels of education and training," the report stated.
Lumina and other organizations have urged universities to better keep track of and better serve these so-called nontraditional students. In addition to academic challenges faced by any college student, nontraditionals often juggle school with families and full-time jobs and may lag in their knowledge of computers and other technological skills.
Nontraditional students at N.C. State say that returning to college was, in some ways, easier than they anticipated.
Constable, who came to the United States with her family from Haiti when she was 12, had always dreamed of getting a higher education but she got married right after high school and didn't have money to attend college anyway. She took classes here and there but never was able to pursue her dreams until 2008, when she got financial help from her employer, IBM.
She, too, is often mistaken for a traditional student.
"I took this one class and they thought I was one of them. They were like, 'Where did you go to high school?' " Constable recalled with a chuckle. "I remember thinking, 'Wow. You could be buddies with my daughter. I could be friends with your mother.' "
There have been challenges and adjustments. Constable was frustrated when she had to choose from courses that did not meet at times that would mesh with her schedule; she is married with two children and works full time. She asked an advisor for help and the advisor sent her a list of other institutions that might be more accommodating to her schedule, Constable said.
"It's as if she was telling me, 'Take your business elsewhere,' " Constable said. "And I did take my business elsewhere - to another department."
She changed her major from business management to leadership and the public sector. That concentration has online classes and is geared more toward nontraditional students, she said.
Distance learning helps
One way N.C. State accommodates nontraditional students is through distance learning, which offers courses online. State has had a distance learning program for more than 10 years, and participation has risen over the years from both traditional and nontraditional students, according to Melissa Williford, who heads the program.
But Williford acknowledged that course offerings through that program are limited.
"We don't yet have everything through distance education, but we are expanding because we see the need," she said.
Technology is a challenge for some older students, such as Georgina Consolo, who did not want to give her age except to say that she graduated from high school "in the 1980s." Consolo was prevented from attending college partly by a bad car accident right after high school. Enrolling at N.C. State to get a college degree was "unfinished business," she said.
One of her biggest challenges was a graphing calculator that was especially frustrating, she said, because everyone else seemed to know how to use it.
"When you're a stay-at-home mom for many years, technology tends to leave you behind," Consolo said. "I was amazed what students know now."
With help from other students and determination, she was able to conquer the calculator.
The help is not all one-way; Consolo said she helped several students in a communications class summon the courage to get up in front of the class and give a speech.
Asked where she acquired the confidence herself to speak in front of an audience, Consolo had to think about it. "I sometimes go and speak in front of the PTA," she explained.
Consolo, who wants to be a high school business teacher, believes she is a lot more motivated to finish college than when she was younger. She now has a better sense of the value of a college education, she said.
"You can say that you're able," she said, "but unless you have that degree, people aren't going to give you a job - especially in this economy."