Older students return to college seeking career advancement, new skills

Enrollment of students age 25 and older increased 42 percent between 2000 and 2010, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That increase outpaced the rate among so-called traditional college students under age 25, which increased just 34 percent during the same period.
by Silas Allen Published: July 28, 2013
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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.

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by Silas Allen
General Assignment/Breaking News Reporter
Silas Allen is a news reporter for The Oklahoman. He is a Missouri native and a 2008 graduate of the University of Missouri.
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