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Deciding if your program is worth the effort

Posted By: Ross Mitchell on May 10, 2002
The request is that both for the student and the college seriously consider if the program is worth the effort. As economists like to say, there are real opportunity costs, some of which are larger than most students and administrators consider. I will draw on my own experiences as a doctoral student with a spouse and two children at a state university to offer examples of where there needs to be support and how it seems to be most effective.

Childcare is a huge issue. Not only do many "mature" students have children to worry about, but they often confront the problem of sick children (especially when their children are quite young). Most childcare centers won't take your sick child, and though I would never say that it is better for someone other than the parent to care for the sick child, colleges are quite unforgiving when it comes to absenteeism (in reality, no matter how accommodating the instructor, a class worth attending is costly to miss). Facilitating access to a parental support network would go a long way toward keeping students with children in school. Explicitly asking students, when they enroll, if they are parents would allow the college/university to alert them to resources and opportunities. (I would recommend the double check box approach: Are you a parent? May we release your contact information to campus organizations who provide information and services to students who are parents?) Of course, you have to maintain the database.

Administrative services are often quite frustrating to deal with because their service structure assumes that time is NOT money (or other high "cost: incursions). In addition to the cost of fees and tuition, books, parking, etc., many "mature" students have to take additional time off from work, find a sitter, etc. in order to make enough time to get to an office before it closes, especially if it does not serve everyone in the queue because closing time has arrived. The college needs to have one or two nights a week when business can be done. On-line services help a lot, if they are available 24/7, but the need to talk to someone and go over discrepancies in person does not go away.

There is also an attitude issue. Many college administrative offices don't see enough "mature" students to recognize that their administrative personnel are in the habit of treating people as people who are not quite children anymore. Many "mature" students are quite capable of understanding the kinds of things that go on in adminstrative offices because the have had many dealings with them (other industries such as the utility companies, banks, etc.) or work with or in one themselves. The arbitrariness of many college administrative rules are perfectly transparent to "mature" students (the rules may function well for the educational institution, but may be wholly inconsiderate of fully competent adults).

Knowing who to contact about important issues is essential. The "mature" student doesn't have time for the run around. Accessibility is critical to keeping "mature" students in the system. Everyone needs to be on e-mail, and this may mean an orientation course for the "mature" student if s/he has not already figured out how to utilize web sites and e-mail. I found that I was able to handle a number of issues by sending e-mail to folks at any hour of day or night -- those with whom I corresponded were very responsible about getting back to me in a timely fashion. But in order for me to get these matters resolved, I had to know the right line of communication within the university's departments. I would strongly recommend making explicit, probably on departmental web sites, the lines of responsibility within the organization and include descriptions of the kinds of issues that are appropriately addressed to each person on the chart (there will always be non-standard expertise and delegation, but shortening the e-mail chain helps a lot).

Being known personally is very important for the "mature" student. We are old enough to be peers of the college's employees (e.g., we may also know them from church, the PTA, or some other community organization). At a minimum, direct e-mail contacts should be made to provide appropriate introductions to the people with whom the "mature" student should be familiar, and the introduction should include an invitation to get acquainted. Your informal organization, at which I assume you made appearances, would serve to very well for facilitating network development and personalizing the college experience.

Additionally, by having an e-mail database, you could solicit feedback in a personal way rather than through the rather impersonal survey experience. Though the solicitation may actually be written generically, with a little database programming, enough personal issue requests could be included to allow the student to respond personally rather than generically (e.g., ask questions about her/his specific program by correctly inserting the name of it - mine was the "Graduate School of Education" - rather than asking about it generically - "in your major department").

As to your student organization problem, depending on how costs are assigned by your college, it would probably be better to just keep the organization "in house" and use your departmental privileges and resources to allocate space, refreshments, materials, etc. to the organization. The bureaucratization of an organization with an unstable membership - students are not supposed to be around permanently - is not always a good thing. You may have to get the college to recognize that "mature" students, like students with disabilities, for example, require the college to advocate for them as an official behavior and to resource that advocacy and facilitate the success of "mature" students.

Of course, anything that the students do or services they receive, will be governed by policy, but the "mature" students may very well feel that if they have to manage and budget everything themselves, then they should be allowed a lot more mature access or just not be bothered with the added burden on an already stressed life situation. After all, formal student organizations have almost no real power when it comes to getting the college to do anything, so why play the paperwork game when there are other activities not receiving attention?

I hope these thoughts and suggestions are helpful. Issues of database management, web site development, working hours, student services, etc. all have costs associated with them, and some of my proposals require changes in "the way things have always been done," but it seems to me that "non-traditional" students require a non-traditional approach to business.

As a postscript, let me say that the students need to be fully aware and reminded in the most pleasant way possible that they too are embarking on a challenging mission by enrolling in the various programs offered by the college. It is important to help these students recognize what they are up against without scaring them off. Information, honest and friendly, is essential. The "mature" student has to be able to take full responsibility for her/his decision to enter/return to school. Often, "mature" students have very clear and reasonable goals. Their purpose and desire if often prized by faculty in the various postgraduate professional schools (e.g., business and education). But if they are unable to obtain enough information about their unique challenges and do not have access to the network of support that makes these challenges seem reasonable, then "mature" students will be hard to keep.

Good luck!

Ross Mitchell
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