By Wesley Robinson
College campuses are seeing more and more Van Wilders, but it isn’t because they are afraid to graduate.
Non-traditional students like the title character from National Lampoon’s Van Wilder, are becoming far more prevalent on college campuses around the country. While more students are taking “victory laps,” not graduating in the traditional four years, many students are starting school later in life, or returning to gain more education.
Of the 17.6 million current college students, 38 percent are age 25 and older, according to a study by the National Center for Education Statistics. Additionally, the report says 25 percent are more than 30 years old.
Lisa Cox, director of the student outreach and transition office, said there has been a 5.5-percent increase in non-traditional students from fall 2008 to fall 2011 when her office last gathered the data on non-traditional students.
“We’ve always ran at 25 percent [non-traditional students] for undergrad only,” Cox said. “That’s notable when the undergraduate enrollment is decreasing [at Eastern].”
Cox said the only measure the university has for determining a non-traditional student is age and classification, but the campus’ non-traditional student group, Older Wiser Learners (OWLS) accepts all students who self-identify as non-traditional students. This can include age, marital status, whether a student has children, how long since a student has graduated high school, whether a student is a veteran, a transfer student and many other self-identified characteristics.
The university is assessing methods to handle the evolving landscape in higher education including at her office, Cox said. Her office may become a central location for incoming students because by 2019 the number of non-traditional students is expected to increase by 20 percent.
“The Council on Postsecondary Education is refocusing its efforts on non-trad students,” Cox said. “Freshmen coming to school straight from high school and graduating in four years … that’s not the reality of today’s world.”
One student adding to the number of non-traditional students right now is Curt Chapman, 56. As a general education major from Nashville, Tenn., Chapman came back to Eastern to finish what he started 36 years ago.
“It’s the only thing in my life I started that I didn’t finish,” Chapman said. “I left college to go out on the road and play rock and roll. I spent most of my life to keep from having a job, that’s why I became a musician.”
Chapman said he has been playing the bass since age 13 and jumped at the opportunity to play music during the first semester of his sophomore year in 1976.
“I’m semi-retired and I had the time to devote to it and a friend of mine works on campus and I got talking to him and he said: “why don’t you go back to school?'” Chapman said.
He said his biggest issue was getting the paper work completed and making the big plunge back into the world of academics as a man over 50.
“I’m very surprised at the acceptance, I’m surprised my age hadn’t hindered my abilities,” Chapman said. “I didn’t expect the welcome that I received, I don’t stand out in the crowd; plus I have seen people older than me on campus.”
Sarah Murphy, 42, a safety security and emergency management and public health graduate student from Berea, is a different case than Chapman.
Murphy said she quit school in the 10th grade at age 15, but not to live the rock and roll life. She got her GED at 18 and spent one semester at community college before having kids and raising her family. About 20 years later she returned to Eastern and is finishing up her dream.
Murphy said having maturity and life experiences have helped her immensely, especially during undergraduate years when she majored in police studies.
“I stayed before and after class, had more respect for the degree when I was done,” Murphy said. “It was culture shock, especially the first couple of semesters. My kids were both in high school when I went back. I had about 3 classes in which the people teaching the class were 10 years younger than I was.”
She said she took 21 hours each of the last three semesters of undergrad including one where she worked two jobs. Without good time management Murphy said that semester would have been impossible, and prevented her from her grad school efforts and having a life outside of the classroom.
“I didn’t sleep that semester, but I did it,” Murphy said. “I didn’t get A’s that semester but I got solid B’s. I’m obsessive compulsive so it helps managing things from family time with my kids and husband, down to playing with the dog. It can be difficult, the main thing is prioritizing. You’ve got to have your priorities straight.”
Now that she’s a grad student with two kids in college as traditional students at Eastern, Murphy is constantly pushing her son and daughter to achieve at a high level.
“Unfortunately for them I have a very high standard. I expect them to get A’s and B’s. I do it and I go to school, work and run a household. If I can do it they can do it.”
Murphy’s advice to anyone wanting to try their hand as a non-traditional student: “You have to make it all work,” Murphy said. “Go for it. There will never be a better time than right now.”