Nicole Pryor’s days are long when the semester begins for Southern University-Shreveport.
From 6:30 a.m. to about noon, she’s at Willis Knighton Pierremont Health Center for her clinical as she works toward an allied health degree. After a couple of hours of rest, she’s at her job at Red River Sanitation until about 9 p.m. before returning home. Then she tries to spend time with her husband and three kids ages 17, 10, and 8.
"And I cook every day," she said.
Pryor, 33, is the emerging face of a new type of student in Louisiana, an adult who returns to college after being gone for several years. These non-traditional students are at least 25 years old and have jobs, children and other responsibilities. Their numbers are increasing in southern states and are seen by some in higher education as an up-and-coming demographic.
The number of non-traditional students has increased during the past couple of years. During the last academic year, the number of students broke 5,000 for Bossier Parish Community College, LSU-Shreveport, and SUSLA combined. Compare that to the 2,219 high school students who took the ACT for college entry in 2009 (the latest information available.) Schools have learned that catering to this group is important.
"If you respond to market, they (non-traditional students) can come back and come back focused and ready to get a degree," said Bruce Chaloux, director for the Adult Learning Campaign for the Southern Regional Education Board.
"Louisiana post-Katrina had a dip in population. A lot were college students. In a non-growth or decreasing growth state, there is a competitive market for traditional students. Some institutions, to pick up the difference, serve adult learners."
Chaloux was one of the folks who helped develop and start CALL, Continuum for All Louisiana Learners, an accelerated academic program for working adults. BPCC was the pilot for the program, which is trying to be implemented at other schools across the state. Chaloux hopes to take the model to other Southern states.
"This is a huge problem nationally," he said. "We have these swinging doors. We get folks to college, but a huge number chose to leave."
And the reason students leave are as varied as the students themselves. Pryor, a Southwood High School graduate, never made it to her first day of college. Her 1984 Mercury Lynx broke down on the way to LSUS.
"I just said I’m not going," she laughed. "I refused to get on the bus."
She instead got a job, married and had children. She tried to go again, this time to BPCC. She dropped out again.
"I just gave up and worked a job," she said.
Eventually, she entered SUSLA’s allied health program in surgical technology. She graduates next year.
"Some days I want to quit," she said. "I have children that look up to me. I have to go on. I care what my children think of me."
The resiliency of non-traditional students makes them a dream come true for colleges, said Orella Brazile, vice chancellor for Academic Affairs at SUSLA.
"Once they get into a program, they tend to finish," she said. "They are more focused and finished until the end."
Brazile said some students, like Pryor, come back looking for a career change. But others come back for drastically different reasons. BPCC student Gina Rider returned to school January 2008, six weeks after her son committed suicide.
"Best thing I could do because it distracted me," she said.
Rider, 49, graduated from St. Vincent Academy. Like Pryor, Rider lived life: got married, had kids, divorced and got remarried.
"I walked in like a deer in headlights," Rider said about her first day on campus. "Going back was really scary. Walking into college at 47 years old was frightening."
Rider will graduate this summer with an associate degree in general studies/psychology, and she plans to attend Louisiana Tech University to finish her bachelor’s degree.
"My goal is to teach," she said. "My goal is to start a nonprofit with other therapists for troubled youth contemplating suicide."
Chaloux said there are four principles colleges should follow as they cater to these students:
Chaloux said schools are learning that non-traditional students have more to offer than the typical student.
"They should recognize that they come back with a lot of experiences," he said.
For Rider, her experiences are leading her toward her goal of starting a nonprofit. Though she always had an interest in psychology, her life experiences made her want to work with suicidal youth. She asks only one thing:
"Don’t call us non-traditional students," she said. "That’s just calling us old in a new way."