Entering college is a daunting point in time for recent high school graduates, but for those who are enrolling at an older age, it can be an even more terrifying task to take on.
Students aged 25 years or older who are just starting college, or who have chosen to return to finish their degrees or study an entirely new field, might experience some disorientation returning from their academic hiatus.
“I was terrified,” said 53-year-old psychology student Tina Mikesell. “I hadn’t been back as a student in 31 years, so it was a jump.”
Like many others who didn’t attend college immediately after high school, Mikesell experienced other important milestones in her life that required her dedication and focus.
“I missed that opportunity when I got out of high school initially. I got a really good job, got married, had some kids,” Mikesell said.
When her son, the youngest of four children, encouraged her to go back to school and get a degree, she took his advice.
Mikesell enrolled in January of 2015, soon after he graduated.
“I had no idea what to expect because I had not taken any college classes,” Mikesell said.
In 2016, 4.6 million students aged 25 to 34 years old participated in college courses, while enrolled students aged 35 years and older were numbered at 3.5 million, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The study also showed that these numbers are only projected to grow by 2025.
Because of this increase in age groups attending college, the ever-changing landscape of higher education is also evolving to accommodate the needs of its more diverse applicants. This goes beyond the traditional 18 to 25-year-old demographic bracket of recent high school graduates.
Cal State Fullerton’s Adults Who Are Returning to Education (AWARE) program aims in assisting “non-traditional” students through the process of re-entering college.
A non-traditional student is explained on CSUF’s website as: “Students who experienced a delay in their education immediately after high school, returning/transfer students, current or formerly married/domestic partnership, a parent or guardian, military veteran, or work full time.”
Many older students might feel unequipped with the proper tools to jump head first into the school pool — especially when surrounded by much their younger cohorts — which can leave some feeling like a fish out of water.
“I had a lot of anxiety regarding my abilities. Just wondering whether I was going to be smart enough or capable to actually get the projects and the assignments completed,” said 43-year-old student Annette Munoz.
The mother-of-three studies human services and also volunteers her time helping others when she isn’t taking care of her youngest child.
“My memory doesn’t work as well as it used to when I was younger, so being able to follow through and get the assignments completed was a big concern for me,” Munoz said.
Munoz was able to continue her education after she quit her job in 2009 to be the caretaker and advocate of her son, who was diagnosed with autism at the age of two-and-a-half. She returned once he began school full time.
For 26-year-old Keith Allen Patschke, who is entering CSUF to receive his masters degree with a focus on finance, being an older student at a new college appears to be a natural happenstance for his professional career.
“Gainful employment was just out of my reach at the time,” Patschke said.
After having just graduated with his degree in technology operations management from Cal Poly Pomona, Patschke struggled to find work and an internship.
“Nobody would even return my calls,” Patschke said.
With many entry level jobs requiring three years of work experience in Patschke’s field, he figured getting his MBA would qualify him in lieu of having professional work experience.
Although Patschke isn’t much older than the typical college-age student, he still felt as though he did not connect well with his peers.
“Even when I was in Cal Poly, I was realizing that I was on average about four to five years older than every other student. I even tried to join a fraternity at one point where I found out that I was extremely older than everybody else,” Patschke said.
Despite the fears and difficulties of returning to school at an older age, Miksell, Munoz and Patschke are confident in their decision to continue their education in pursuit of a better quality of life for their futures.
“I’m not forced here,” Munoz said about her decision to go back to college.“With my success in school, it’s only going to make my success in life that much better.”’