COLUMBIA — It is several minutes past 2 p.m. on a Thursday, and Roger Smith hurries to class.
He scoops bites of lunch from a Styrofoam container as he walks, then ducks into a small, dimly lit classroom in Middlebush Hall, where eight other students sit scattered throughout. He picks a center seat in the front row, sets his black Mizzou backpack down on the gray linoleum floor and pulls out a notebook.
Heather Maddock, 30, takes online classes from Stephens College to complete a degree in health information administration. She also works full time at University Hospital as an administrative associate. After Maddock's son started kindergarten in 2008, she knew it was the right time to start working on her degree.
The recent state of the economy and its effect on her family is a big motivator.
"My husband, who does electrical work, is unemployed right now because the economy is so rough," she said. She recently had a second child and plans to continue working and taking classes online.
"Online classes make it easy for me to do my homework when it's most convenient," Maddock said.
Victoria Knapp, 48, is pursuing a master of arts in communication with the University of Missouri-St. Louis. She has been working on the degree for six years, taking one class each semester.
Knapp decided to enroll in the program while working at UMSL in hopes of advancing her career. After moving to Columbia for a job as the senior editor of MU Extension, she decided to continue with the degree.
"I'm motivated to keep going because I'm so close to finishing after six years," Knapp said.
She is no stranger to life as a nontraditional student. She earned a bachelor of journalism degree from MU in her late 20s as a single mother. She plans to graduate this summer.
Kristin Hufnagle, 40, received a degree in health information administration from the Stephens College’s online program. Hufnagle is from Hager City, Wis., works part time and has two young children and a husband who is a carpenter.
"My husband's job can be hit-or-miss, so I wanted to get a better job," Hufnagle said.
She had been working on the degree since 2006 and recently accepted a job with 3M in health information systems.
“It will just be good to get back to a normal routine of working and not having to juggle school on top of everything else,” she said.
For Smith, this is an easy freshman-level class that he's taking to fill up his schedule. Today, a guest presenter will talk about the resources offered by the Student Health Center.
Ten minutes into class, one of his classmates is asleep at his desk. Another has tucked in an earbud and is listening to his iPod. But Smith sits with his notebook open and his attention on the presentation.
He always sits near the front. He wants to catch any little thing the professor might say to give him an edge. He wants to be seen, and he likes to interact.
The presenter starts explaining payment options for student health services: “There are several different ways your parents can pay if insurance doesn’t cover your medical visit.”
A student raises her hand: “Is there someone I can talk to at the health center if I think my roommate might be depressed?”
Attentive as he is, the information is of little use to Smith. His parents stopped supporting him almost 20 years ago.
He doesn't have a roommate, but he does have the following: a wife, who has also gone back to college full time; three children, all in school; aging parents he cares for; a life supported by loans, grants and government aid; and the dream of a college degree as a path to a better future.
Roger Smith is 36 and one of a growing number of students enrolling in colleges and universities later in life. He’s a full-time health sciences major and hopes to go to nursing school after he graduates in May.
Mid-life students such as Smith juggle school projects, homework and midterm exams with household chores, paying bills and putting food on the table. They sit in college classrooms surrounded by 19- and 20-year-olds, then go home to spouses and children of their own. They put themselves in debt, deferring sleep and material luxuries for the promise of more security.
In 2006, an estimated 6.7 million older adults were enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities. That's nearly triple the number enrolled in 1970. The trend can be seen in Missouri as well, and it has been more intense in recent years, according to the Missouri Department of Higher Education.
About 47,000 adults over age 25 attended public colleges or universities in Missouri in 2006. That number increased to 57,000 by fall 2009.
The National Center for Education Statistics predicts that between 2005 and 2017 adult enrollment in U.S. colleges and universities will increase by 19 percent.
Changing his life for the better
Smith greets everyone with a smile and never hesitates to say hi to his instructors when he spots them on campus. His upbeat attitude says little of the rough road that brought him here.
He grew up poor in East St. Louis. His mother took some community college classes but didn't finish; his father never made it past the ninth grade.
When Smith was a sophomore in high school, his girlfriend, Aquita, came over one day and uttered two words: “I’m pregnant.” Their son, Rogerick, was born premature in October 1991. Despite caring for an infant with health complications, Smith and Aquita both graduated from high school in 1993.
To help support the baby, Smith started selling drugs. “I was hanging out with the wrong people and living a dangerous life,” he said. He and Aquita split and, in 1994, Smith joined the Navy.
But trouble found him there, too. He was disciplined, court marshaled and honorably discharged for "failure to adapt to military standards” the same year he joined. He returned home to East St. Louis and continued to sell drugs until he was arrested and put on probation.
At the same time, his mother had developed serious heart problems. Her health worsened and, after a last surgery, she lay in her hospital bed and admonished her son: “Go back to the Navy or go to college.” She died two hours later.
“I think she knew she didn’t have much time left,” Smith said. “She was really worried about where my life was going.”
Smith tried to honor her wishes and enrolled at Forest Park Community College in St. Louis. But he dropped out when, in 1999, he and Aquita decided to try to make their relationship work. She became pregnant with their second child. They married and moved to Columbia to be closer to Smith's sister.
Smith worked for Culligan Water installing filtering systems while Aquita stayed home to care for Rogerick and the baby, Quenecia. In December 2001, they had a third child, Roman. They were trying to hold together a modest but stable family life.
But that same year, Smith injured his knee at work. That began a cycle of recurring injuries and surgeries — five to date. Smith found new work as a garbage truck driver, a school bus driver and a semi driver, but over time he couldn't handle the physical demands. No longer able to do hard labor, he wasn't qualified to do much else.
“There were lots of jobs I could do, but I needed training or school," he said of that period. And while he thought he'd fulfill his mother's wish and return to school eventually, he had never felt it was the right time for his family.
Suddenly, he recalled, "I was kind of forced to."
Smith enrolled at MU in August 2007. Aquita continued to stay home with the younger children. Because of Smith’s disability, Vocational Rehabilitation covers his tuition and fees; he receives Social Security checks for himself and each of his three children totaling $1,900 each month. It’s just enough to pay the bills with a small amount left for emergencies. Food stamps help pay for groceries.
Aquita, too, had always dreamed of going to college. Once all the children were in school, she saw her chance. In 2009, she began taking classes at Moberly Area Community College, studying health sciences like her husband. She will transfer to MU next semester to finish the last two years of her degree. She’s a diligent student, but time to study can be hard to find.
“I have three A’s and a B right now," she said. "Ideally, I want a 4.0 GPA, but I can't worry about that because, right now, it's just not going to happen.”
Aquita Smith pays her tuition and fees through a Pell Grant, which is awarded to students from low-income families.
The Smiths filed for bankruptcy and lived in subsidized public housing until they bought a brick-front home in a north Columbia neighborhood.
The weak economy has sent many midlife adults back to school. That's despite more than 200 percent tuition increase since 1980. With the national unemployment rate close to 10 percent, more people are gambling that an advanced degree is an investment in a higher paying job.
In 2007, adults ages 25 to 34 with four-year degrees earned an average of $10,000 a year more than adults of the same age who had completed associates degrees and $16,000 more than adults with only high school diplomas, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. While government assistance makes it possible for Roger and Aquita Smith to go back to school, they are hoping their degrees will be a ticket to financial independence.
Their goals are also personal. Roger Smith wants to be the first of his father’s sons to earn a college degree. And he wants better for his children and to set an example. When it's their turn for college, he wants to be able to help with their tuition.
Finding time for everyone, everything
It's midafternoon on a Monday and Smith’s art class lecture has begun. About 100 students fill the creaky, wooden seats in the auditorium. But Smith is absent. He stayed home to work on renovations to his basement. While his classmates study frescoes and the painting techniques of ancient Greece, Smith insulates doors and cuts wood for closet shelves.
The basement is a priority for the Smiths. His father is diabetic; Aquita’s mother has heart problems. Both are moving in soon, and the to-do list is long. The stove and microwave need to be installed in the small kitchenette. The bathroom floor needs to be tiled.
Finding time for both school and family or work commitments is one of the biggest challenges for adults returning to school, according to a 2006 study from Capella University, an online university based in Minneapolis. Smith experienced that first-hand last semester.
Early in the semester, he was in the backyard, cutting down a large sugar maple. His youngest son was allergic to the tree, and Smith feared the roots would mess with underground pipes. But he miscalculated the cut, and the tree fell onto the kitchen and garage. The Smiths have home insurance, but they received money from Columbia’s Community Development Block Grant Program to help with repairs.
Weeks later, Smith re-injured his knees and had to have another surgery. Then his father went into a diabetic coma. Smith withdrew from his classes for the semester.
"I couldn't focus,” he said. “I was just thinking about getting my family taken care of. I wanted to crawl in a hole or a cave and not come out."
But he took inspiration from his wife. “All this stuff happened to her, too, but she still makes it through school. She just keeps going."
Everyone in the Smith family pitches in. Roger and Aquita take turns cooking. The kids do their own laundry, and Roman, who is 8, just learned to iron his own clothes. Roger’s father and Aquita’s mother have since settled in and can help out around the house, as well.
The Smiths' oldest son, Rogerick, lives at home and takes classes at Moberly Area Community College. He is partially blind because of complications from birth, so his tuition also is covered by Vocational Rehabilitation. He remembers what it was like when both of his parents went back to school.
"There was less free time for the family, and everything had to be more structured," he said. "I think it’s a good thing, though. They just want us to have what they never had growing up.”
Aquita Smith has been frustrated that the community college doesn't seem to accommodate nontraditional students. She sometimes must miss class because of her kids, and this creates problems when professors enforce strict rules about late assignments and don’t post notes online.
“We deal with different stuff than younger students do,” she said.
But Roger Smith said MU has been supportive: "I just tell them what's going on and a lot of times I'll hear, 'Okay, Roger we'll work with you' or 'what do you think is a good timeline to get this done?'"
Colleges offer help in various ways
Some colleges and universities have programs geared specifically toward nontraditional students. One example is Columbia' College's Student Support Services, a grant-funded program for first generation students, students with disabilities and those in financial need. According to program director Nancy Lombardi, about 50 percent of the students who qualify for services are nontraditional older adults.
"Many of these are students with families," Lombardi said. "They have responsibilities to children and a spouse."
The program offers academic advising, free tutoring, mentoring, workshops on study skills and time management and laptops for students to check out.
"Our mission is to help them graduate in four to six years with as little debt as possible,” Lombardi said.
At MU, the Student Parent Center offers academic support, parenting support, mental health and wellness resources and childcare. Connected to the Student Parent Center is MIZFIT (Mizzou Families Involved Together), which provides information on health care for students with families, family bathrooms and lactation rooms on campus, social events and other services.
MU's Student Success Center is another place where adults can go for group tutoring, writing help and career advice. Yve Solbrekken, who works in the center, has worked with Roger Smith for two years, tutoring him in science and helping him adjust to life as a full-time student.
“She’s helped me with planning out my classes and staying focused,” Smith said. “When I see her, she asks me how I’m doing and checks on my progress.”
Solbrekken said older students often have a maturity that younger students don’t.
“They can reason with themselves, step aside, take a breath, look into resources for help, put together a plan and execute the plan,” she said. And when something doesn’t go their way, “they don't give up or blame others, which is more of a young adult's response.”
Strong visions of the future
It's 6 p.m. on a mild fall evening at the Smith home. Rogerick is out back bathing one of the dogs. Nearby, Roman, 8, and his sister Quenecia, 10, giggle and shout as they jump on a trampoline. Inside, Roger Smith pulls out his backpack and sits down at the dining room table with his wife. They both have homework to do. Aquita’s textbook is opened to a page filled with colorful diagrams of DNA. She has two tests coming up.
It's a lot to handle, but Smith is confident the payoff will be worth the sacrifices. On graduation day, he’ll remember his mom. If she were in the audience on that day, Smith imagines that she’d say, “You finally did it. I’m so proud of you.”
And when he looks forward, when he hopes to be done with nursing school, he thinks of his kids: "I see my daughter in high school and my baby boy in middle school. I see my oldest son succeeding in college."
He smiles as the picture expands and becomes clearer.
"I see my wife and I with our degrees and entering the workforce. I see us being totally free of any government assistance. I see my family finally being able to breathe easier.
"I see my family being free.”