A new father trying to provide for his family. A grandmother finishing what she started more than four decades ago. A man navigating multiple schools, hidden curriculums and financial hurdles. These are just some of the older students working toward a degree in the U.S.
The majority of today’s college students have characteristics that describe them as “nontraditional“: They work; they’re raising children; they’re not coming straight from high school. And while some just take a couple-year detour to make money or care for family, others are going back far later in life.
In 2018, nearly 7.6 million college students were 25 years old and over, according to estimates from the federal government. That’s about 2 in 5 students in higher education.
And being on older student comes with its own challenges — think of the years separating them from their last high school math class. But those students tell NPR that studying later in life also has advantages: They have skills and tools that could only have come with age and maturity.
Here are some of their stories.
— Elissa Nadworny, NPR
Santa Benavidez Ramirez, 42 (San Antonio)
When Santa Benavidez Ramirez has a big test or assignment, she takes a couple vacation hours and goes to the library.
The 42-year-old mother of four works full time in the finance department of San Antonio’s community college system, and the school library is about 10 minutes away.
“It helps because it’s quiet and it’s not taking away from my family because I’m already at work,” Benavidez says. “And of course it helps with my grade, whatever the assignment is.”
This is her fourth semester taking part-time community college classes.
On evenings when Benavidez has school, she pays a babysitter to look after her 4-year-old daughter, Madison; her 13-year-old daughter, Jayleen, either stays home or with her dad. (Her other two children are in their 20s.) Some time during the three-hour class, Benavidez tries to text Jayleen to make sure she took her bath and did her homework.
When class gets out at 9 p.m., she picks Madison up from the babysitter and drives home to put her girls to bed. After everyone is asleep, Benavidez gets her textbook back out and does homework while the day’s lesson is fresh in her mind.
The busy mom says she wishes she’d gone to college right after high school, but at the time just earning a high school diploma felt like a big accomplishment. Benavidez grew up in San Antonio, and neither of her parents made it past middle school. She had her oldest son, Jesus, when she was 16.
“When I was younger, high school graduation [was] like the best thing ever,” she says. “We grew up in the projects. I didn’t want to live in the projects for the rest of my life, so immediately what we think is, ‘Oh, I got to go to work.’ ”
She says she decided to go back to school because her diploma had taken her as far as it could, both professionally and financially.
“I need a degree in order to move forward — if not here, [then] just out in the world somewhere else.”
Eventually, she plans to transfer to a four-year institution for a bachelor’s in business administration and accounting.
— Camille Phillips, Texas Public Radio
Matt Seo, 29 (Chesterfield, Va.)
The day his son was born was the day Matt Seo knew it was time to leave the Navy. He wanted more time with his family, less time on a submarine.
“Love at first sight, that’s all BS when it’s romantic,” he says, “but when it’s your child, that’s a true thing.”
At the time, Seo knew he was going to move to the Richmond, Va., area, where his wife and two kids live — but he didn’t yet know how he was going to support them.
“That’s a pretty scary moment, trying to figure out what’s going to pay the bills when you get out of the Navy,” he says.
Seo was 28 with five years of experience on submarines and an associate’s degree in General Studies. He knew he loved fixing things and he knew he needed to make good money, so his path was two-fold: Find full time work, and head back to school to gain more skills.
“I knew I wanted to do something in a technical field,” Seo remembers. “And to advance in a technical field you’ve got to have the check in the box, so to speak, of education. But I also knew I needed to get experience.”
Thanks to the GI Bill, money wasn’t a limiting factor when it came to choosing a college — but time was. And Seo thought four-year schools were “for somebody coming out of high school, who’s going to be able to go to school all day and not have to support a family.”
Plus, he needed evening classes, and a degree he could knock out quickly. He also knew learning online wouldn’t suit him. So he thought his best option was at the local community college working on his associate’s degree in electrical engineering technology. At the same time, Seo works the overnight shift as a full-time electrician at a factory.
He usually gets home in time to wake up his son and read him a couple books. Then he sleeps all day before heading out the door to school.
Seo says he makes good money, but with a degree he could make even more. Plus, he says, when he’s no longer the low man on the totem pole he can cut out the weekend shifts. That means spending more time with his family.
Soon, Seo would like to start saving for his own kids’ college education. He wouldn’t mind if they joined the military, but he doesn’t want them to feel like they have to in order to afford a college degree.
— Mallory Noe-Payne, WVTF
Jarrell Harris, 25 (Ford Heights, Ill.)
Six years before Jarrell Harris was born, his hometown — just outside Chicago — was named the poorest suburb in America. Harris says, growing up, he was keenly aware of how labels like that defined him in the eyes of others.
“[People say] there’s nothing good that comes out of Ford Heights, Ill.; they’re always shooting out there, they’re always fighting.”
In some ways, Harris views himself as a rebel in his community: He graduated high school and immediately went to college, the first in his family to do so.
That was seven years ago. In that time, Harris has attended four different colleges on his way to a bachelor’s degree. Harris says the transfers were because he just didn’t know how to handle the college world as a first-generation college student.
He admits he didn’t study enough at his first school, and struggled academically. And then there was the money — even with loans, it was too expensive. There were also transcript issues and credits that didn’t transfer, causing him to start over.
He wishes he had known more about college, including how to navigate financial aid. Looking back at his high school preparation, “it was all peaches and cream, but no one wanted to talk about the bottom of the crust,” he says.
In 2017, Harris earned an associate’s degree from a local two-year school, while working full-time. This semester, he’s taking classes at a four-year school and a community college, knocking off credits toward a bachelor’s degree. He still has student debt from his first year in school, which he hasn’t paid off. He’s hoping to graduate in 2020.
— Kate McGee, WBEZ
Liz Bracken, 66 (Atlanta)
Liz Bracken’s life is busy. Between college classes at Georgia State University, working as a medical assistant and being a grandmother, her hands are full.
“I say to people, ‘This is just the best time of my life,'” Bracken says. “And really, going back to school has done it … just the new ideas and the reading.”
Bracken has attended college on and off since her freshman year at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, in 1970-71. At the end of that year, she left school to help care for her mother, who had breast cancer. Throughout the years, she enrolled in nursing programs at different schools. Although she didn’t finish a degree, she accrued enough credits to carve out a career as a medical assistant.
This time around, Bracken is an English major. She’s part of a Georgia State program that provides free tuition for college students aged 62 and up.
Her five grandchildren — three boys and two girls — are very aware of her academic pursuits. In August, Bracken started taking a German language course. At the same time, her twin grandsons were learning German in their fifth-grade class; it was their second year studying the language.
“They’re rolling their eyes because I’ve passed them,” she says. They say, ” ‘Nana, you’re going much faster than we are.’ ”
Bracken is now a college junior. She’s spending part of spring semester studying abroad in Paris, for a class about the French Revolution from the perspective of British writers at the time. She says she’s not putting a deadline on graduation.
“This is all about the journey,” she says. “I don’t have any restrictions on how quickly I have to finish.”
For others who may be considering a return to college, but aren’t sure about managing the demands, Bracken has a suggestion: “Just take one course, just try it,” she says. “It’s not going to hurt anything if you just take a class and try it.”
— Martha Dalton, WABE
Sakeenah Shakir, 45 (Chicago)
For Sakeenah Shakir, 45, the hardest part of going back to college wasn’t taking the ACT or figuring out how to pay for school. The tough part was delegating — allowing her older daughter Safiyyah to assume soccer-mom duties, her young sons to do household chores and her husband to prepare all the family meals except Friday night pizza, which Shakir always made from scratch.
Another thing she didn’t give up was homeschooling her five children. In fact, that’s the role that sent her back to school in the first place.
When Safiyyah was about to finish high school in 2015, Shakir sat down to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, for her daughter. On a whim, she decided to fill the form out for herself as well.
The Chicago native had started college right out of high school. But she stopped at age 22, after converting to Islam, getting married and starting a family. That’s when Shakir turned her attention to operating a licensed home daycare and homeschooling her children.
“It was almost like heaven, I just enjoyed it so much,” she says.
But she and her husband, who owns a barber shop, had always agreed that she would finish her engineering degree “someday.” From the moment she hit “send” on her impromptu FAFSA, Shakir got hints that day had come.
First, she needed to take the ACT.
“I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, the last time I took the ACT I was 18’ — almost 25 years ago.” she says.
The community college she hoped to attend provided links to an online prep course, and Shakir had no problem passing the test. From there, she was sent to meet with an advisor.
“I’m still thinking in the back of my mind, ‘How much is this gonna cost?’ And when they told me that my financial aid was going to pay for everything, I was like, ‘Oh wow!’ That was probably my biggest concern,” she says. “Especially as a non-traditional student, I wanted to be as debt-free as possible and not have to take out any loans.”
She enrolled in a two-year community college and graduated with a full scholarship to Governors State University, a four-year school where she’s currently on the dean’s list.
These days, Shakir sometimes sneaks in coursework while keeping her sons on task with their homeschool classes. She admits to pulling a few all-nighters “when big projects are due,” but juggles her schedule well enough to find time to exercise regularly.
Now, instead of studying engineering, Shakir has switched her major to education. She says homeschooling her children has given her a love of teaching. Her dream job is to teach middle school math.
— Dusty Rhodes, NPR Illinois
Taryn Jim, 29 (Laramie, Wyo.)
For Taryn Jim, the hardest part of going to school as a single mom is having to be away from her children, Layla, 10, and Silas Jr., 7. That’s especially true during exams or finals, when she spends a lot of time in the library.
Jim says being away from her kids brings back difficult memories.
“My parents both went to college, so I got left with my grandparents, aunt or even by myself,” she says. “I think me and my siblings don’t have any memories of our mom spending time with us. But me, I enjoy spending time with my kids.”
Jim, 29, is Northern Arapaho, and grew up on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. She says, growing up, she never thought she’d go to college — not until she had Layla. Her daughter was born with severe brain damage and an underdeveloped skull, a birth defect known as microcephaly.
“The day she was born was the first day I knew what a speech pathologist was,” Jim says. And meeting that speech pathologist got her thinking about her own career prospects. At the time, Jim had two jobs, at a preschool and a Head Start program, and was barely making ends meet.
“I just got tired of working minimum-wage jobs,” she says. “I want to give them [Layla and Silas Jr.] a way better life then what I had.”
But Layla needed special attention, and Jim had to put off college until her daughter’s health stabilized.
Eventually, Jim started taking part-time classes at a nearby community college, then transferred to the University of Wyoming, one of the state’s only four-year schools. The transfer meant moving her family a few hours away to Laramie. She paid for the relocation using settlement money from a federal lawsuit over mismanagement of her tribe’s mineral rights. Without that money, Jim says, the move would have been almost impossible.
In Laramie, Jim has had to balance being a full-time student, a single mom and a student leader — she’s president of Keepers of the Fire, a Native American group on campus. She supports her family through the scholarships, including one for Northern Arapaho students, and works part-time for the university.
Jim plans to graduate in May with a degree in American Indian Studies, and she has her sights set on a master’s in social work.
— Taylar Dawn Stagner, Wyoming Public Media