Economy sends more adults back to school

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

The emotions of returning to school for the first time in 26 years hit David Banks on a recent trip to Walmart.
The 46-year-old Amory man, who will begin studying welding at Itawamba Community College on Monday, was buying three-subject notebooks and mechanical pencils. All around him, kids were buying school supplies.
“It was weird being a 46-year-old guy on the aisle,” Banks said. “Twice, I asked a kid what was the best mechanical pencil to buy. It was a little strange.”
Banks is one of many non-traditional students now returning to school at a time when the nation’s economy struggles and unemployment numbers rise. Colleges and universities in Mississippi reported large enrollment jumps for the fall semester, and experts at those schools are predicting more increases in adult learners as the spring semester begins.
“People 25 years old or older is our fastest-growing segment,” said Larry Boggs, ICC’s director of Recruiting and Scholarships. “It has grown in the last couple of years with the economy.”

Connection Day
Last month, ICC held a Connection Day, an outreach event that brought many of its program directors to the Tupelo campus to answer questions for prospective non-traditional students. More than 120 prospects attended the event, and 25 or 30 registered that day, Boggs said. He expects more than 700 new students this January, about a 10 to 12 percent increase from the number of new students who enrolled last January. Most of those who enroll in January will be non-traditional students.
“The older population is a hard group to get a hold of,” Boggs said. “They want something better with their life. A lot of times something sparks them.
“They lose a job or have a kid, and it is like, now something happened, what do I do?…With the economy like it is, there are more people than ever who need what we can provide.”
Banks graduated from Amory High School in 1982 and took some classes at ICC but never finished his degree. Instead, he went to work with his family’s company, Banks Furniture, and had a lot of success. But after going through a divorce, he had to sell the business in 2005. He briefly worked construction jobs in Texas and now does some landscaping and painting work. He decided to try welding after a cousin took a welding job and made a lot of money.
“I don’t know if I’m making a good choice or not, but it should be good,” Banks said. “I used to make a lot of money and go on trips outside of the country and all over the U.S. Now all of a sudden, I’m looking at a different world. It’s a little weird.”

Why going back
There are two big reasons why adults go back to school, said Mark Binkley, executive director of Academic Outreach and Continuing Education at Mississippi State University. Some need an advanced degree to keep their job. Others are being retooled to transition into a new line of work.
Binkley said that MSU’s distance education/online learning program now has more than 1,500 people enrolled, a 17 percent increase from last year. Those students live in all 50 states and in other countries. A large number of them are non-traditional students, Binkley said, noting the average age is between 30 and 45.
Binkley expects distance learning to continue to boom because most people will now work in several different fields during their life.
“It is not like it was 20 years ago when you would get a degree in a certain discipline and work in that all your life,” Binkley said.
“You have a family and are trying to hold down a job and there is no way you can get to a college campus, so distance learning is the way you’re going to go.”
It’s similar reasons that have led to an increased enrollment at all four of the University of Mississippi’s regional campuses – Tupelo, Booneville, Grenada and DeSoto – said Pam Starling, assistant director of marketing for the University of Mississippi Division of Outreach.
The Tupelo campus had 822 students enrolled in the fall, a 14.6 percent increase from last year, and the Booneville campus had 89 students, a 64.8 percent jump. Many of the students on those regional campuses are non-traditional students, Starling said.
“We’ve been seeing a lot of people needing to come back and retrain,” Starling said. “For people who have jobs or family commitments and can’t drive to Oxford, we’re making education available closer to home. We want to help people where they are.”

Difficult transition
It isn’t always easy for people to return to school though. Neal Whitten of Tupelo wants to return to become a paramedic so that he can transition from his current job as a truck driver, where he’s having a hard time finding work. He studied and got the necessary ACT score. But it’s a Catch-22 – Whitten said he needs to find work first so that he can save up the money to return to school after 16 years away.
New Albany’s Beverly Rutherford plans to start at ICC in the fall, where she will study to become either a physical therapy assistant or an occupational therapy assistant. Rutherford, a stay-at-home mother of four, said she was inspired to pursue the career when one of her sons needed to go through therapy.
Rutherford, who has a bachelor’s degree in educational psychology from Mississippi State, said that she and her husband Ross don’t need the extra salary. But with her kids now aged between 2 and 9, it’s time for her to get back into the work force.
She acknowledges it won’t be easy.
“I have to still be the mom and the wife I need to be,” Rutherford said. “But you can’t go wrong with getting more education.”

Contact Chris Kieffer at (662) 678-1590 or at chris.kieffer@djournal.com.