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Nontraditional Student Community Growing at OU

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Todd McCullough’s son does not want to sit still. When four-year-old Evan isn’t thumbing buttons intently on his Nintendo DS, he’s galloping across the lobby of a building at Ohio University’s Lancaster campus until his orange hair disappears around a corner, forcing McCullough to apologetically stand up and collect his boy.

“The sooner we get done, the sooner we go to Penn Station,” he tells Evan with a tone that is loving but stern, before turning to apologize again.

“Nontraditional student,” he said, shaking his head and laughing. “This is part of it.”

McCullough, 31, is a licensed optician. He worked in a manufacturing facility in Columbus with his wife until the soured economy forced the business to close its doors and outsource its jobs. Their son was barely a year old when returning to school became the couple’s best option.

McCullough is now president of “Adults Belong in College,” an organization founded at OU-L three years ago for nontraditional students. ABC hosts a variety of events that help students with any challenges they may face, from pumpkin carving nights to brown bag lunch chats.

“We try to find topics students might be interested in,” he said. “Some of our students are older and they don’t know how to use Blackboard or how to do searches on the library website.”

OU defines non-traditional students as those enrolled over the age of 25, though age is not the only determinant.  McCullough explained that the term includes a 19-year-old with a child, a military veteran or a student of any age working full time while obtaining a degree.

Nationwide data suggests that college enrollment often increases in the midst of a recession. The numeric increase in non-traditional student enrollment is 1.5 times greater than the increase in traditional student, according to data obtained from the National Center for Education Statistics at the US Department of Education.

OU was the largest growing university in Ohio from 2011 to 2012, growing 5.7 percent on the main campus while the rest of the state saw a 1.1 percent decline, according to the Ohio Board of Regents.

Craig Cornell, vice provost for Enrollment Management, said that non-traditional students played a key role in the increase. The population of students 25 and older, which remained stagnant since 2000, saw a 28.5 percent increase from 2010 to 2011, according to the Office of Institutional Research Enrollment Statistics. Cornell said that graduate and eLearning programs, such as the online RN-to-BSN program, contribute heavily to the growth of non-traditional student enrollment.

The RN-to-BSN program helps registered nurses earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree entirely online. Nurses employed by one of over a hundred healthcare facilities partnered with the university can obtain the degree while continuing to work full-time.

“The reality of a full-time mother or father working as a nurse in Northeast Ohio, they’re not gonna come back here to get their bachelor’s degree,” Cornell said.

Of all eLearning students enrolled at OU in 2011, 90 percent are ages 25 and older, and 92 percent were working towards a degree in nursing, according to the Office of Institutional Research Enrollment Statistics. Online courses provide educators with a way to augment programs to the needs of non-traditional students, Cornell said.

“That’s exciting to me,” he said. “It’s allowed us to reach out to and have programs for students who traditionally wouldn’t be here.”

Tammy Herring is another non-traditional student at the Lancaster campus. She enrolled in college immediately after graduating high school in 1989, but chose to become a stay-at-home mother after a marriage and two children. She later started working in an office for an orthodontist, and then a family doctor, before deciding to return to school.

Herring recalls sitting at her desk one day watching a manager that was younger than her handle business in a gossipy, immature fashion. She didn’t mind working under a younger person, but she realized that she was underappreciated with no room to grow upward.

“I just thought, ‘I’m never going to get anywhere doing this,’” she said. “So I just thought I’d give myself my own promotion.”

Her now-teenage children are less time consuming than when they were younger, though a part-time job and an ongoing divorce do pile on the stress. Various problems such as learning to use APA style for writing papers crop up as well. When she first went to school, they still used typewriters.

McCullough’s wife, who now works full time, experienced similar troubles while obtaining a degree in communications.

“When she went to school 10 years ago, nothing was digital,” he said. “So now she has no portfolio.”

However, non-traditional students often find that years in the workforce before entering college provide them with skills beneficial to success in school, such as understanding the importance of punctuality and getting the money’s worth of a degree. McCullough also feels the mix of students builds the feeling of community within a university as older and younger individuals learn from each other.

“If they want to learn how to balance a checkbook, I’m their guy,” he said.

Herring said the biggest challenge of all was just finding the courage to step into class.

“The day before I started my first class – and my daughter was 13 at the time, and wise beyond her years – I remember saying to her, ‘Sweetie, what are all these teenagers going to think of me?’” Herring said. “She said to me, ‘Mom, in this economy, I think you’ll find a lot more people your age.’”

Neither Herring nor McCullough will deny that it’s tough, but not insurmountable.

McCullough stressed that faculty and staff members who are happy to assist students through their struggles play a factor in student success, and Cornell agreed.

“That’s something we talk about more than students probably realize,” Cornell said. “It’s not about just getting students here. It’s getting students to be successful.”

More than anything, McCullough believes a willingness to work hard makes all the difference.

“There’s no secret to it,” he said. “There’s just effort. And Red Bull.”

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