College education more accessible for older students

BYU defines nontraditional students as those over 30 years old pursuing an undergraduate degree, according to Amy Soto BYU Nontraditional Student Association faculty advisor. (Haley Mosher)

Editor’s note: This story pairs with “Moms overcome obstacles, return to BYU”

Eighteen-year-olds roll up to college campuses and move into dorm rooms to begin their independent lives. This is what many people picture when they think of college students. However, national statistics show an increase in older — or nontraditional — students seeking an education.

In fact, federal statistics indicate that 75 percent of U.S. college students don’t pursue higher education directly out of high school, according to Education Dive. The Higher Learning Advocates report that 38 percent of today’s students are older than 25.

The Higher Learning Advocates report states, “Today’s students are more diverse than any previous generation of college students: they’re diverse in age, race and income level.”

What is a nontraditional student?

The National Center for Education Statistics indicates age as the most frequently used characteristic for defining nontraditional students. Students older than 24 typically fall into this category.

“Age acts as a surrogate variable that captures a large, heterogeneous population of adult students who often have family and work responsibilities as well as other life circumstances that can interfere with successful completion of educational objectives,” according to the center.

Amy Soto has served as BYU’s Nontraditional Student Association faculty advisor since last summer. Soto said BYU defines nontraditional students as those who are 30 years and older and are pursuing an undergraduate degree.

She said BYU has adopted this definition because BYU’s student population tends to differ from most universities. There are typically 400–700 students who fit BYU’s definition of nontraditional students enrolled each semester, according to Soto.

The role of the Nontraditional Student Association is to connect students to resources and other nontraditional students.

“Nontraditional students are still students — every opportunity, every resource that’s available to any other student is open to them,” Soto said. “But they may not know about it in the same way, so we are just an extra voice to let them know that there are people that are in similar situations, and there are people that care about them.”

The association holds new student orientation outreach sessions during fall and winter semesters and typically holds socials during the semester.

Soto said there are many reasons older students return to finish their degrees. Reasons can include coming back because they enjoy learning, finishing a goal or necessity of family life situations.

“I think every time we learn and we grow and we develop, our own lives are better because of it, so I can see the benefit for an individual to return,” Soto said. “It blesses the individual, it blesses their families and their friends, their neighbors and their community.”

Map compiled by Kaleena McKell.

How education has become more accessible

Technology is making education more accessible for all students, according to Soto.

“Now students can attend in the evening, there’s BYU online classes, there is independent study — there’s lots of different programs,” Soto said. “You can attend on campus — you can attend even up at the Salt Lake Center, so if someone lives in Davis County they can still work on their classes from a distance.”

Soto also said evening classes allow for flexibility with time.

Another obstacle for all students is paying for school; however, there are scholarships available for nontraditional students.

“I think (finances are) a challenge for any student, but I think it’s exacerbated by additional responsibilities,” Soto said. “But with my experience, people are making sacrifices to make their dreams a reality.”

These sacrifices often involve students taking time to seek out scholarship opportunities. Soto said she has even seen students sell their homes to move closer to campus to make returning to school easier.

“I think the more you learn about the resources, the more you can maximize how you’re using them, so that could help financially as well,” Soto said. “The benefit of BYU is it’s the lowest tuition in the state.”

Soto shares how she thinks nontraditional students impact the campus community in the audio clip below.


Bachelor of General Studies well-suited for nontraditional students

The Bachelor of General Studies program has been offered through BYU Continuing Education for 20 years. To enroll in the program, students must first meet the residency requirement of having completed a minimum of 30 credit hours at BYU.

Trav Johnson, Bachelor of General Studies director, said there are various reasons students leave BYU before finishing their degrees. Some may leave because a spouse is starting graduate school elsewhere or going to start a new job. Other times, it can be due to health issues. Students may even leave to join a business venture or start their own business, according to Johnson.

“A lot of things will make it so that our potential students have to leave BYU, but by the time they’re ready to come back after those things have been resolved, they’re usually older,” Johnson said. 

Students of all ages participate in this program, but on average most of the students enrolled are in their late 30s or early 40s. The oldest graduate of the Bachelor of General Studies program was 85 years old, according to Johnson.

“This program is designed so that former BYU students can finish their degree from virtually anywhere in the world. We have students in eight foreign countries,” Johnson said. “Most of them are in the United States, but there are students in other countries.”

Johnson said Bachelor of General Studies students also have a variety of motivations for finishing their degrees. Some students want to finish what they started and demonstrate by their example that education is important.

(Kaleena McKell)
This graph compares the percentage of nontraditional students enrolled at Utah universities. Percentages were pulled from university admissions websites. (Kaleena McKell)

“Others are in a position where they can’t really advance in their work without a bachelor’s degree, so it has a direct impact on their employment and on their income,” Johnson said. “Others may be out of work, and they may need a degree so that they can get work.”

Johnson said technology and online courses have made it possible for more students to access high-quality education from a distance. More people are now aware of the different options for education, according to Johnson.

“We communicate with our students and prospective students a lot through social media, which didn’t exist until just recently,” he said. “There’s a lot of things that I think helped make education more accessible, and, in many ways, more enjoyable to be a part of than it used to be.”

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