Overcoming obstacles: Colleges open doors for nontraditional students

Colleges open doors for nontraditional students


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With three children ages 12, 7 and 1, Celeste Smith doesn't have much free time, a reality that might have kept her from pursuing as an adult the college degree that she bypassed when she graduated from high school.

But when she heard about Chatham University's Gateway program for women age 23 or older -- a program that can include academic credit for knowledge gained through such experiences as employment, volunteer work or travel -- Ms. Smith, 40, knew it was her door to higher education.

She is among the nontraditional students who are taking advantage of programs designed to meet the needs of those who have the desire to pursue higher education but often see obstacles that prevent them from doing so.

The obstacles -- for traditional and nontraditional students alike -- can include finances, time, transportation, academic preparedness and physical disabilities.

A variety of programs are aimed at breaking down those barriers and making job training and academic programs attainable.

Robert Morris University operates a center specifically to serve the needs of students who are military veterans.

Edinboro University has a services program for people with disabilities and an accessible campus that allows those with physical limitations to attend college.

At Community College of Allegheny County, students can access Math Cafes, where they can have their math skills assessed and receive computer-assisted tutoring to bring those skills up to college levels. Centers for writing and literacy skills soon will be available for CCAC students whose skills in those areas may not be at college levels.

"Some students come to college who are not academically prepared," said Mary Frances Archey, vice president for student success and completion at CCAC. "But if they are willing to put the time in, most could get to the level required."

CCAC President Alex Johnson is among those who consider tight finances to be the No. 1 barrier to higher education for many students. The community college is building its endowment for academic scholarships in an effort to meet President Barack Obama's challenge for institutions of higher education to increase their graduation rates by 50 percent from 2010 to 2020.

At Pittsburgh Technical Institute in North Fayette, there has been "a significant increase in institutional aid in the past year" because of the need of students, President Greg DeFeo said.

"The biggest barrier we find is finances," Mr. DeFeo said.

In addition to providing need- and merit-based financial packages, Mr. DeFeo said his school does not charge students for remedial courses they may need to get their academic skills to the level required for their course of study nor does it charge students extra fees for changing their majors, a decision that generally means additional courses and time in school.

For Ms. Smith, less time in school attracted her to the Chatham program.

"It did appeal to me that I would be getting college credit for prior learning. I've done a lot in my 40 years, in employment and other activities," she said.

So far, she has earned six credits for knowledge gained through her professional experience working for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and a volunteer position through which she has written successful grant proposals to get funding for a community organization for young black men.

She's hoping to earn up to nine more credits that way, which means she will earn her degree in arts management significantly sooner than a traditional student.

"Right now I am balancing a lot, and it is difficult," Ms. Smith said.

Deborah Prise, director of the Prior Learning Assessment program that allows Gateway students to earn credits for prior knowledge, said students have earned credit for experiences such as serving on a borough council, running businesses or foundations, and working in the medical examiner's office.

Students seeking such credit put together a portfolio on their topics, and faculty evaluate the portfolios to determine if they are worthy of credit.

"Sometimes life just happens and education falls by the wayside. But when students decide to come to school, prior learning assessment can give them quite a jump start," Ms. Prise said. Students can earn up to 30 credits through prior learning assessment.

At Robert Morris, special attention is given to those who have served in the military and now want to attend college. The university started its Veterans Education and Training Services program in 2009 when it noticed an influx of students who were using their military benefits to attend college.

"We built our program based on the needs of the current veterans," said Dan Rota, program director. "We function in three different areas -- academic, social and financial."

Most of the military veterans are older than traditional students, ranging in age from mid-20s to 50s, Mr. Rota said, and many have families.

The program started with 31 veterans and now has 250. In addition to the tuition reimbursements and stipends the veterans have earned through the military, Robert Morris provides grants ranging from $1,200 to $2,700 based on the veteran's years of service.

The program also maintains a fund that provides emergency grants to veterans for staples such as food, gas or rent.

"What we do here is try to acclimate them to academic life. We try to indicate that there aren't any real procedures or hierarchy, that authority changes by the classroom that you sit in and based on the instructor," said Mr. Rota, a retired U.S. Air National Guard brigadier general.

The program provides a lounge and lunch area for veterans; free tutoring, if necessary; and some social programs such as veterans football games and breakfasts.

"We try to meet whatever needs they may have and make this a pleasant experience for them," Mr. Rota said.

Students with physical disabilities face myriad barriers in pursuing a college degree. At Edinboro, services are provided to meet every need that students with physical disabilities may face. The university, which decided more than three decades ago to become an accessible campus to those with disabilities, is one of about a half dozen universities in the nation to provide attendant care for students, said Robert McConnell, director of disability services at Edinboro.

Of the 7,000 students currently enrolled at Edinboro, more than 500 have disabilities and about 75 use wheelchairs. About half of the students with disabilities live on campus.

"We decided a long time ago to put services in place for the disabled so they don't have to worry and can just relax and be a college student like everyone else," Mr. McConnell said.

There are accessible dorm rooms throughout the campus. One dorm, Lawrence Towers, has on-site attendants to help students get up in the morning and prepare for the day and to get ready for bed at night. Throughout the campus, aides are available to help students with disabilities with such tasks as reaching materials on high shelves in the library and making their way through the dining hall lines.

The campus also has a wheelchair repair shop and flat terrain, which makes it easier for students with disabilities to navigate.

In addition to the full range of services provided, students with disabilities at Edinboro also find a campus community that embraces them.

"We've gotten the entire university on board. If a student with a disability is having a problem and any of us hear about it, we address it," Mr. McConnell said.

"I think the biggest accessibility thing we have here is that the employees and fellow students care."

education

Mary Niederberger can be reached at mniederberger@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590.


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