The college try: Many older students face more job, family obligations

Kat Ponds, with her daughters, Kyree, 4 months, (left) and T’Ayr, 2, and grandmother, will be among the growing number of college students who juggle family and jobs with school work. Ponds is getting ready to enroll in Trident Technical College to pursue her dream of becoming a nursing instructor.

Kat Ponds already has two associate degrees and a bachelor's degree, earned during her six years in the Air Force. But her ultimate desire is to become a nursing instructor.

So Ponds, a Summerville resident, now 33 and married with two young children, is getting ready to re-enroll at Trident Technical College in the summer to continue her studies and juggle her responsibilities.

"It's been challenging because we don't have family here," she said.

But they do have a support system. Their oldest, 2-year-old T'Ayr, is in day care. And a good friend often is around to help.

So Ponds tries to avoid getting too stressed out, she said. "Life is too short." And besides, "It's never too late to do anything."

Nation of jugglers

She is not the only one trying to balance school with work and family.

A new study shows that 75 percent of students today are college commuters, juggling families, jobs and school. And the major factor preventing many from completing their degrees is time, or to be more exact, the lack of it.

These competing demands are forcing many of today's students to stay in school longer, which can severely hurt their chances of actually completing their degrees, according to the study, sponsored by the nonprofit Complete College America.

"As the clock runs, students' lives fill up with jobs, relationships, marriages, children and mortgages. The list goes on and on," said Complete College America founder Stan Jones.

And with the majority of students taking at least six years to complete a bachelor's degree, Jones said it's time that colleges rethink the way they structure their programs.

"Colleges need to realize that the way that they are doing things isn't working," he said.

His organization's report, "Time is the Enemy," says that the key to increasing graduation rates is creating programs that help students make better use of their time rather than let them "waste it" on excess credits, remedial classes and attending part time.

On the right track

Many colleges and universities acknowledge the need to help students complete their degrees in a timely fashion. New Jersey's Bergen Community College is attacking the problem by getting students on the right track early.

With the aid of a $2.9 million Title V grant, the college has implemented an institutionwide program to improve academic success and student retention.

"Research and data show that students who see success in their first three semesters tend to continue that success," said college President Jose Adames.

While some students do not succeed because they do not have time to complete their assignments, other students can complete their work faster when given the opportunity to work at their own pace.

This is exactly the idea behind the new math computer lab on campus that allows students to take a virtual course at their own pace rather than over a 15-week semester, often completing the work in as little as six weeks.

"It's amazing what students can do when they are given the flexibility to work at their own speed," Adames said.

Pamela Middleton, director of counseling and career development at Trident Technical College, said a lack of family or other outside support also can factor into a returning student's success rate.

"It takes a lot of planning, coordinating schedules and sometimes relying on the help of relatives and friends for assistance with child care or just transportation arrangements," she said.

The college offers support services to help such as an early alert program, where instructors can refer students to a counselor for personal or academic reasons.

Middleton also meets with prospective students, such as women who've been through a divorce and never been in the workforce before or are returning to school after raising their families, to walk them through the enrollment process.

Some students don't think they can be successful in college because of their age or other factors and have low confidence levels, she said, but many times she sees them flourish because they are more invested and serious students.

2 years vs. 4 years

Some community college representatives think it is a mistake for students to transfer to four-year institutions before completing their associate degrees.

Susan Norton, assistant vice president of academic programs at Trident Technical College, said it isn't usually a mistake, but it can matter.

She said every four-year college is different, as are individual student's goals.

"In general, if a student can easily complete the associate degree, there are always advantages to moving on with a degree in hand."

If a student is unexpectedly interrupted and has to drop out of school for any circumstance, that student has a degree and "that's always a plus looking for work and on a resume."

There are some four-year colleges that allow traditional transfer students with associate degrees to automatically receive credit for all of their general education requirements and gain junior status. Others won't and have minimum GPA requirements and hours taken, without any advantage to have an associate degree.

While colleges often offer students flexible options such as taking courses online, on Saturdays and during the winter and summer, students often have inflexible jobs that interfere with writing papers and finishing assignments.

Ashley Layton, 32, is enrolled at the Charleston School of Law. Newly married, she's been pursing her degree as a part-time student while working full time in several positions, most recently as a legal aide to a family attorney. A former math teacher at Porter-Gaud School, she also tutors in what spare time she has left.

By working while she attends school, Layton has been able to borrow less from the bank to fund her education. This has eased her mind during a period when student debt too often is very high and jobs are increasingly difficult to find.

"It's definitely been challenging," she said. "Sometimes I wish I could know what it's like to be a student and not have all these pressures going on."

Cost of full-time jobs

Full-time jobs that prevent students from attending school full time could cost students more because of the loss of financial aid, some experts warn. That is what Dina Razafy, 23, of Lodi, N.J., found during his first two years of taking part-time classes at Bergen Community College.

"Part time was tough. Without financial aid, I had to work full time to keep up with paying for school," said Razafy, who quit his job as a cashier and now works as a valet on nights and weekends to give himself more time for school.

It's that kind of decision that Alicia R. Graham wished she had made years ago before she left school with what turned out to be 87 nontransferable credits.

"Trust me, if you're willing to do it, do it when you are young," said Graham, who hopes that a degree in business management will lead to her dream of owning her own business one day.

Matthew Malysa of The (Hackensack N.J.) Record contributed to this report.