College students with children or over the age of 25 are enrolling in universities at the highest rate ever, with nearly 74 percent of American undergraduate students now considered “nontraditional,” according to USA Today.
At BGSU, the trends aren’t even close to the norm. According to Gabriel Dunbar, nontraditional and military student advisor, only 7% of BGSU undergraduate students are considered nontraditional students.
“We have about 1,300 students that identify as either 23 and older or as apart of the military. The reason for this is because BGSU has been focused on the traditional student experience. Actually, if you look up BGSU Strategic Plan for the next few years, put together by President Rogers, post-traditional or nontraditional students will become more of the focus of BGSU, because by 2025 the traditional student enrollment rate will begin to decline. The 7% number will begin to rise over the next several years,” Dunbar said.
Nontraditional students have the benefit of having more specific reasons for going to school.
“Maybe they worked for a few years or have had other life experiences have helped them hone in on their passion or purpose. So generally, when they come back to college, they generally have a very specific plan,” he said.
While there are some benefits to being a nontraditional student he says, there are also some challenges students might face along their academic journey.
“BGSU is generally known for our strong traditional undergraduate experience right out of high school. Sometimes, our nontraditional students can feel a little isolated when they’re in class with all 18-year-olds. Sometimes there can be a lack of confidence,” Dunbar said.
Due to the tight schedule a nontraditional student typically has, Dunbar says the students tend to stay very focused on their studies.
“The students generally have a family they are trying to provide for or they’re trying to make a career change, so a bachelor’s degree is kind of their ticket to being able to get their new career. They generally have less margin in their life to able to get to classes, do homework and juggle life’s balances. The student’s financial situation can also be very constraining as far as what they are able to do,” he said.
Marianne Vanderbeke, nontraditional journalism and public relations student came to BGSU after spending years as a stay-at-home mom.
“I started out in college at 18, and I wanted to be an education or english major. I’ve always loved words. Everyone always told me I should be a nurse and how great I would be as a nurse. I was a real people pleaser when I was young, so I did exactly what they said, and I went to nursing school for seven years and I never got a nursing degree. In the last nursing program I was doing, I decided that I just couldn’t do it. I was going to be a mom, and I was engaged, and I decided I was just going to do the mom thing. I did the mom thing for 23 years,” she said.
She said caring for a special needs’ child took up a lot of her time, but since her children are now grown up, it was time for her to focus on something different.
“I have a special needs child and they require a lot of hands-on care, but since now all of my kids are grown, no one needed me at home anymore, so I applied to BGSU and got it,” she said.
Like many traditional students, she switched her major before finding her passion she would focus on for the rest of her time at BGSU.
“My advisor told me I should try communications, so I initially took communications as my major and I wasn’t sure what my minor was going to be. My very first class was Kelly Taylor’s Journalism 1000 class and she teaches it so well. She brings in all of these people who have real-life experience and it opened my eyes a lot,” Vanderbeke said.
She initially decided to keep her major as communications but decided it would be beneficial to get involved in the Public Relations Student Society of America.
“I would go there, and I would do my communications major and then I later took Journalism 2000 with Julie Hagenbuch and she sat me down towards the end of the class and said I needed to be a public relations major. So, I decided to change my major,” she said.
Even though she knows what she wants to do now, Vanderbeke says she still struggles with her work and life balance, just like a younger college student typically.
“I now know what I want to do, I’m not trying to figure out life, but even though my kids are adults now, sometimes they still pop up into my life. I do still struggle with the work-life balance a younger college student also struggles with,” she said.
She said some of her family initially struggled with her decision to go back to school, but not everyone in her family fully grasped the time commitment an academic journey can take.
“My two youngest sons think it’s great. My oldest son doesn’t get why I’ve gone back to school. My husband is verbally supportive, but sometimes he doesn’t understand the time commitment and the scheduling,” she said.
After she is done with her program at BGSU, she says she wants to start her career at a place where she knows her life is making a difference.
“I want to work in a nonprofit public relations environment. I’m hoping to get an internship and to explore the area. I know I might have to work in an agency at first, but it doesn’t faze me, because I have really enjoyed the public relations trips we’ve taken. My husband is looking to retirement, and I don’t think I ever want to retire,” she said.
Lisa Langhals, nontraditional BGSU student, ended up as a student at BGSU after a sudden job loss.
“Prior to coming to Bowling Green, I was the wellness program director at a YMCA and my position was eliminated along with several others. I just really had a hard time finding a job in the wellness field without a degree,” she said.
She decided to come to BGSU to learn more about her passions and to get a degree in dietetics.
“There were several job opportunities I had along the way I was more than qualified for, but each time the interviewer would tell me they chose someone else only because they had a degree and I didn’t, so I choose to get a degree.
After she completes the program, she still wants to work in the field she has been working in her entire life.
“I would still like to work in the wellness field or the wellness area within dietetics. I think I might specialize in diabetes and diabetes prevention. I’m also very interested in food allergies and how to help people try to avoid them. Maybe also even educate the public on how to help people avoid food they are allergic to,” she said.
Even though she said the time commitment is hard, her advice to others is to go back and follow your dreams.
“I have an aging mother, two grandchildren and a part-time job, so for me, scheduling is the toughest part of this whole journey,” she said.
She says she wouldn’t trade her experiences despite how time-consuming her academic journey has been.
“The most rewarding part has to be the learning. Going deeper into a field that I have already spent a lot of time in and learning it at a higher level.”
Despite the challenges, she still encourages other people who want to go back to school to make the first step.
“Just go ahead and do it. I’m enjoying the process, it’s a huge commitment though. There are a lot of scheduling conflicts. A lot of different responsibilities to juggle, but it is worth it. I am trying to enjoy the process and we’ll just trust the process,” she said.
Even though BGSU’s enrollment rate might not fit the new national norm, the new Strategic Plan presented by President Rogers shows the focus of the typical BGSU student will make a change over the next several years.