Sponsored: Today’s nontraditional students

Profiles of three adults who are back in school

Think you’re too old to get a postsecondary education? Think again.

Colleges are changing. Yes, there are still ivy-covered buildings, inspirational professors, big-team sports and frat parties — but many of the students are no longer 18- to 22-year-olds.

The traditional image of college students has been transformed. Only 7.3 million of the 18 million U.S. undergraduates in 2011 were enrolled full time in four-year public or nonprofit colleges, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Of that number, more than two million were older than 21; almost a million were at least 25; and nearly a half million were in their 30s or older.

The other 10.7 million undergrads were enrolled part time or attending two-year colleges, for-profit institutions or online universities.

There are several factors at work in the shift to more nontraditional students enrolling in postsecondary programs. The recession threw millions of people out of work and many of them went back to school to improve their skills or change careers. In some industries, an increasing reliance on technology means that workers need more education just to keep up. Other people have toiled for years in unsatisfying jobs and just want a change.

No matter the reason for going back to school, getting a postsecondary education is no longer only for recent high school graduates. A college education can be beneficial at 18, 24, 35, 50 or beyond.

Here are the stories of three adults and why they went back to school.

'I had always wanted a college degree'

After working for years as an administrative assistant in state hospitals in Pennsylvania, Donna Harley, 55, moved to Atlanta with her husband six years ago. When he died in 2010, Harley gave herself a year to figure out what to do with the rest of her life.

“At first I thought about getting a paralegal certificate. I love reading and had to research policies in my past jobs, so I thought it would be a good fit,” Harley said. “But I had always wanted a college degree, so I decided to go for it.”

Harley is working toward a bachelor’s degree in political science from Clayton State University in Morrow.

“When I went to Clayton State, it was the first time in 37 years that I had been in a formal classroom and I was scared to death,” she said. “I found that the other nontraditional (students) and even the younger kids just wrapped their arms around me. It’s like a family.”

The academic work wasn’t as tough as Harley had expected — until she hit math.

“I told my professors that algebra hadn’t been invented when I was in school,” she said with a laugh.

Harley received help from tutors at the school’s Center for Academic Success and from supportive professors.

She has thrived at Clayton State and boasts a 3.81 GPA. Harley’s professors recently nominated her for the Georgia Legislature Internship Program. Harley, who expects to graduate in December 2014, is thinking about running for the Clayton County School Board after she graduates.

“My grandson in high school says I’m his inspiration and my daughters are proud of me,” she said. “I wasn’t sure about a four-year degree at first, but it’s doable. It’s not as scary as it seems from the outside. I encourage anyone to just jump in.”

'If they can do it, so can I'

Michael Washington, 52, is a busy man. He works three or four nights a week at C.R. Bard, a medical technologies company. He has a wife and three children. He takes classes at Georgia Perimeter College’s Newton campus, where he also participates in the honors program and student government.

“I have a good job, but my wife just got her master’s degree and my daughter just graduated from Georgia State (University). Both are in accounting, and I thought, 'If they can do it, so can I,’ ” he said.

Washington has completed 31 credit hours in the school’s associate degree program in business administration with a concentration in accounting. He hopes to graduate from Georgia Perimeter College this summer and plans to enroll at Georgia State, Georgia Tech or the University of Georgia to earn a bachelor’s degree in business/accounting.

“It’s been a challenge. I’m working hard and always studying,” Washington said. “English was always my worst subject. It takes me forever to write a paper, but I was proud to get a B in that course.”

When he first enrolled, Washington expected most of his classmates to be recent high school graduates, but he has found more nontraditional students than he had anticipated. Two other older students serve with him in the judicial branch of Georgia Perimeter’s Student Government Association.

Despite all the demands on his time, Washington carries a 3.9 GPA and is looking ahead.

“My goal is to get my bachelor’s degree and my employer has said they’ll find something for me when I do,” he said. “I’ll keep working as hard as I can. The education is so valuable and it makes me feel good.”

'I'm excited about my future'

Sheila Fenlon, 48, thought about studying nursing when she attended Auburn University, but the chemistry classes were daunting. Instead, she graduated with a degree in finance, worked as a flight attendant, got married and stayed home for 18 years to raise her children.

Now a single mother with a son in college and another in high school, Fenlon is enrolled in the accelerated bachelor’s degree program in nursing at Herzing University’s Atlanta campus. Fenlon has overcome her fear of chemistry and is committed to nursing.

Her second son was born prematurely and spent time in the neonatal intensive care unit. That experience serves as inspiration for Fenlon.

“What special people those nurses were. Now it’s my turn to help others,” she said.

Studying to become a nurse is a challenge.

“There’s a lot to this program — classwork, labs, practice in the lab to master the skills, and next semester we start clinical rotations,” Fenlon said. “I haven’t missed a class, but finding the discipline to study — that’s the most challenging part of being back in school.”

Fenlon’s class of 30 students meets four days a week, all year long. Sometimes she travels from Roswell to Tucker to work with a study group in sessions that can last up to five hours.

“We come from different backgrounds and we’re different ages, but being a small class makes us close-knit,” she said.

Fenlon, who expects to graduate in August 2015, has made the dean’s list but she knows the tougher courses are looming.

“My boys are proud of me and I want to be a role model for them,” she said. “I know this is what I want to do, and I’m not going to give up, no matter hard it is.”