Shaunea Brown was stuck. At age 29, the West Coast native had worked in a coffee shop, as a bank teller, at an auto auction and as an office coordinator, but, without a college degree, found that her opportunities to advance professionally were scarce.
"I did OK, but I found myself hitting a ceiling constantly," Brown said. "I wasn't able to move up the ladder or go into any management or leadership positions."
When Brown and her boyfriend relocated to Chicago from Portland, Ore., she was disappointed to learn that the job prospects for someone with no postsecondary credentials in her new city were just as dismal as those in her former one. Brown was able to secure a job as a restaurant hostess but decided she was ready for a change. After graduating from high school, she had considered college, but family and financial concerns intervened.
Two years ago, she enrolled in the business program at City Colleges of Chicago's Harold Washington College. This month, Brown will graduate with an associate's degree she hopes to build on by transferring to a four-year university.
Adult students like Brown have long been thought of as "nontraditional learners," but with the still-fresh reverberations of the recession, the explosive proliferation of online courses and a job market that's demanding more and more specialized skills, what was once the exception is quickly becoming the norm.
According to the Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics, from 2000 to 2010, enrollment of students 25 and older rose 42 percent, while enrollment of students 25 and younger increased by 34 percent — and that trend is expected to continue. By 2020, the center projects, student enrollment for the older age range will rise 20 percent in comparison with younger students' rise of only 11 percent. Adult students are studying to enter or advance in fast-growing fields like health care, business and analytics.
They're returning to the classroom to finish degrees, earn specialized certifications and learn emerging technologies that will bolster their sense of accomplishment and boost their professional appeal. What we once called "night school" has evolved into a booming industry and a key career device for a large swath of the American workforce.
"Historically, a lot of continuing education has been about degree completion, which is important for people, but it had much more of a personal enrichment element to it," said Joel Shapiro, associate dean of academic programs at Northwestern University's School of Continuing Studies. "We still get a lot of people who do continuing education for personal enrichment; the big change is just that the vast majority of them now are seeking career change or improvement."
Brenton Mestel was content with his job at a medical supply startup when he began taking an evening entrepreneurship course through DePaul University's Continuing and Professional Education program in 2012. Mestel, a graduate of the University of Michigan, was interested in supplementing his political science degree.
"I was feeling like I took my education for granted while I was in undergrad," Mestel said. "I really wanted to get back into the classroom environment and feel like I was learning and growing and not just stuck in the day-to-day activities I'll be doing for the rest of my life."
At 26, Mestel said he was among the youngest in his class at DePaul. Shapiro said that in the past few years in particular, he has seen more students just a few years out of undergraduate school returning for graduate classes alongside the greater concentration of 30- and 40-somethings with years of work experience. Though older students flooded institutions in recent years to keep themselves viable in an increasingly volatile marketplace, additional schooling, if they can afford it, can be an attractive alternative for those yet to break into a steady career path, experts say.
Students aren't the only ones whose perceptions of continuing education are shifting. As this group of "nontraditional" pupils continues to grow, schools and policymakers are taking notice. In a 2009 address to Congress, President Barack Obama asked Americans to "commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training."
Schools also are slowly making changes to accommodate the needs of students often juggling classes, full-time work and family life. The Chicago-based Council for Adult and Experiential Learning works with colleges and universities to add programs and improve areas such as career counseling and financial aid, President Pamela Tate said.
"What you see is college administrators and system heads in the states all paying attention to this in a way that even five years ago, six years ago, they were not," Tate said. "It's a radical departure."
For Michael Smith, the opportunity to put his years of personal and professional experience toward the degree he never completed more than 20 years ago is just one of many benefits he has discovered since going back to school at the City Colleges of Chicago in 2012. The 39-year-old father and accounting associate cites networking opportunities catered specifically to working students like him as some of the best perks. The program even gave him a chance to provide opportunities for classmates — he landed a younger student an internship lead at his firm.
But the biggest driving factor in Smith's decision to enroll? His toddler son.
"I wanted to go back to school to secure his future and also to make an example for him," Smith said.
"When he's a little older and maybe not quite sure what he wants to do or has maybe faced some challenges with education, I'll eventually have something I can point to to show my credentials that I understand what he needs to do."
One way schools are adapting is by adding online courses and offering flexible hours and options to serve students like Smith. At DePaul, an online program helps students convert previous work, plus military and volunteer experience, into credit.
"It's something we would like to focus on even more," said Hap Bryant, director of the Continuing and Professional Education program. "We try to take into account the students' expectations, the various learning styles, because there are some people who feel more comfortable and learn better face to face, and I think there are some people who feel more comfortable online."
While many traditional colleges and universities are expanding their online presence, with the rise of for-profit schools (which have seen their enrollment skyrocket by 225 percent in the past two decades, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures) and other Web-based alternatives such as Khan Academy and Skillshare, some institutions are having trouble keeping up.
"There is still going to have to be a change of mindset among a lot of boards of trustees at colleges and universities," Bryant said.
The schools welcoming adult learners, experts say, will continue to fare well as demand for increasingly specialized schooling rises.
"A lot of students are looking to find ways to pull out what is most effective, what is most meaningful for them from those degrees and package those," Shapiro said.
"One of the things that continuing education does, and does pretty well, is react to what the market wants, and so a lot of continuing education programs have had the opportunity to grow."
In Brown's case, what has been most meaningful about going back to school is not only that she's now on a career path she's proud of — Brown has an internship with a top accounting firm — but also knowing she was not alone.
"When I first decided to go back, I was scared out of my mind. Even though I had worked all those years and was comfortable dealing with a lot of different professionals and people, I was extremely intimidated," she said. "It helped me see that I'm not the only person in this boat."