A Whittier, Calif., bookkeeper and 37-year-old mother dreams of becoming a volcanologist, while a 48-year-old District of Columbia attorney wants a new career in real-estate development. In Murfreesboro, Tenn., a former Army enlistee and 26-year-old father of five sees financial planning in his future. All three are in graduate school.
Today's grad student typically starts an advanced-degree program long after the traditional undergraduate-to-graduate student has finished. Nearly half of all grad students enroll between ages 24 and 35, according to the Council of Graduate Schools; one quarter start at age 36 or older. Most have real-world work experience. About a third are raising children.
Here's the rub: Many grad schools have been slow to accommodate nontraditional graduate learners. "Universities have failed to look at the demographics of their graduate students," says Carol Ann Baily, director of Off-Campus Student Services at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro. "That's because they would have to do something about it."
Baily has given the issue a lot of thought: She's the former chair of the National Academic Advising Association's Advising Adult Learners Commission. Too often, she says, support services are structured for young adults—full-time students whose lives revolve around campus. As a result, nontraditional students often confront advisers who keep banker's hours, a lack of prep classes, and little empathy from faculty about balancing work, family, school, and commuting.
Richard Denney, a former Army combat engineer with five kids, relies on his grad school for help. At Middle Tennessee State, where he is pursuing an M.B.A. at night, nontraditional students have their own resource center and lounge. A student organization called OWLs, for Older Wiser Learners, offers time-management workshops and adult-learning conferences; advice ranges from financial aid to stress-management seminars.
In Las Cruces, N.M., New Mexico State offers courses for older students in time management, speed-reading, and writing to reorient those who are rusty when it comes to hitting the books. "While [grad students] tend to be excellent students, they need to retool their study and comprehension skills," says Linda Lacey, dean of the university's graduate school. Nontraditional students "really do present a different set of issues," remarks Jean Morrison, vice provost of graduate programs at the University of Southern California. Child care and health insurance can be big distractions, she says, but "universities, by and large, are slow to come around to a family-friendly model." After USC re-examined its policies in 2005, its graduate school established a Center for Work and Family Life. Like many other schools, it offers health insurance—and struggles with how to make this affordable for older students.
Lisa Alpert, a USC Ph.D. candidate in geology and the mother of two toddlers, hadn't planned to pursue a Ph.D. at all. "I felt I was too old," she says. But a field trip during her master's work changed that; a professor encouraged her to apply, adding the magic words: "We pay you." Alpert is now immersed in "the insides of volcanoes and subduction zones"; she hopes to work for the U.S. Volcano Disaster Assistance Program.
WISE move. Alpert feels she struck gold at USC. Through an initiative called Women in Science and Engineering, or WISE, created by a $20 million gift to increase the numbers of women in science, math, and engineering, Alpert gets her tuition, plus a $4,000 stipend toward child care. As a result, Alpert's 3-year-old gets day care three times a week. In return, Alpert teaches 20 hours a week.
Some grad students think older is wiser. "It's a lot easier psychologically when you go back to school at this point in life," says Ronee McLaughlin, a 48-year-old Washington, D.C., attorney and real-estate investor working on a master's in real-estate development at the University of Maryland. Besides, her graduate program "assumes people are working," McLaughlin says; required courses are offered in the evening. Maryland offers several programs and services for nontraditional students, including child care and an organization called Graduates as Parents.
Initially, McLaughlin applied to the executive M.B.A. program at Maryland's business school, only to find that it cost $89,000. "It was too expensive," she said. Instead, a grad school dean recommended she pursue a two-year master's: It was cheaper, and it fit her interests better. Now she's tackling the hardest part of going back to school, the technology—an experience that has created a bond between the mother and her 10-year-old daughter. "She certainly enjoys seeing me struggle with my homework," says McLaughlin.