Shortly after her oldest daughter graduated from high school and enrolled at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Pamela Ballard was looking through a stack of information that colleges and universities had sent her daughter.
In that stack was a packet from the University of Oklahoma. Although the information had been meant for her daughter, Ballard thought it might be a good fit for her, as well.
“It had always, always been a dream of mine to be a college graduate,” Ballard said. “If I ever wanted to graduate from somewhere, it was the University of Oklahoma.”
So in 2007, at age 47, Ballard enrolled in OU's College of Liberal Studies, which works primarily with adult college students. Ballard graduated with her bachelor's degree in 2010 and completed a master's degree last year.
Stories such as Ballard's are becoming more and more common, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics.
Enrollment of students age 25 and older increased 42 percent between 2000 and 2010, according to the center. That increase outpaced the rate among so-called traditional college students under age 25, which increased just 34 percent during the same period.
Predictions indicate that trend is likely to continue. The center estimates enrollment of adult college students will increase by 20 percent from 2010 to 2020, with an increase of just 11 percent in enrollment of students younger than 25.
‘I didn't know how'
Ballard got married shortly after graduating from Sapulpa High School. She was a good student in high school and did well on the ACT, she said. But no one in her family had gone to college, and she didn't consider it an option.
“I didn't know how to make that happen,” she said.
She considered going back to college for years, she said. She had a successful career in banking, she said, and also had worked as the executive director of a nonprofit group for five years.
For Ballard, going to college meant taking classes in nearly every format the university offered for adult students. Most of her classes were online, she said, but she also took weekend seminars on campus in Norman and weekend courses at Fort Sill.
“It was a combination of every single thing they offered,” she said.
When she first began taking classes, Ballard said, she was worried about standing out in a room filled with 18-year-old freshmen. But in many of her classes, adults outnumbered traditional students, she said. Even when that wasn't the case, the other students treated her respectfully, she said.
Now 54, Ballard took over as the executive director of United Way of Enid and Northwest Oklahoma in January. She said she doubts she would have been considered for the position without a master's degree.
‘All over the globe'
Michelle Schults, advising coordinator for the OU College of Liberal Studies, said enrollment among adult college students has skyrocketed in recent years. Much of that increase has been driven by students taking online courses through the college, Schults said.
Over the past decade, OU has seen fewer adult college students enroll in on-campus courses. The university had 1,870 on-campus students age 25 and older in 2012, down from 2,001 in 2002, according to the 2013 OU Factbook.
But that decline could be due to the growing popularity of online classes. The college began offering online courses in the late 1990s, Schults said.
Today, about 98 percent of its classes are online, she said.
Online classes allow the college to reach students all over the state and nation, she said. The classes also are popular among military personnel, who often can't take traditional classes because of where they're stationed.
“We literally have students all over the globe,” she said.
‘They know why'
Kent Sampson, director of campus life at Oklahoma State University, said the university has seen increased interest from adult students. Many of those students already have degrees and are returning to college to develop certain skills, Sampson said.
Because Stillwater isn't in a metropolitan area, it's primarily a residential campus. That means most of its adult students live nearby, and they're generally more involved with campus life than they might be at a commuter campus.
Adult college students generally need help navigating the university's various offices, Sampson said. Financial aid, scholarships and G.I. Bill benefits can present challenges, he said, and university officials need to be ready to help with those issues.
Those students also often need legal advice, he said. The university offers on-campus housing for families, but most adult students choose to live in off-campus apartments, he said. In many cases, he said, they need legal advice on how to read a lease. Sometimes they need help with a dispute with a landlord, he said, but more often, they just need information.
Although they may have extra needs that their younger counterparts don't share, adult college students tend to make good students, Sampson said. They come to college with renewed focus, and if they need academic help, they're less apprehensive about seeking it out.
“They know why they're here,” he said. “They know why they returned.”