The new face of the freshman class

If you think of a “college freshman” as a dorm-dwelling 18-year-old, think again.

Instead consider a 52-year-old grandmother of four … a 26-year-old high school dropout … a 23-year old Army National Guard sergeant back from the Middle East … a 34-year old immigrant from Mexico. These are truly the students of today.

They’re a diverse and driven group, with goals forged in hard times and odd jobs, false starts and course corrections. They’ve raised children, waited tables, landscaped yards, cleaned restaurant carpets at 2 a.m., maintained Army helicopters in the desert heat. They’re adults now – and students, too, because they’ve learned, often the hard way, that a high school diploma isn’t enough.

On the following pages, you’ll meet some of these students—seven members of America’s “new freshman class.” They’re eight individuals, from all walks of life, who are seeking or have recently earned their first credential after high school.

“I kind of had a feeling there was something out there waiting for me,” said Marcia McCallum, now attending Austin Community College in Texas more than 30 years after earning her high school diploma.

Chris Mulford, an Army National Guard sergeant and student at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, N.C., stated it simply: “I wanted something more for my future.”

Community college officials say that today’s students—often spanning multiple generations in chronological age—have learned the tough lessons of the modern economy. More and more jobs require education or training beyond high school, experts say.

In Seattle, home to a booming economy, the average age of students at Seattle Central College is 28, said college President Sheila Edwards Lange. Many of these students are enrolling after years of absence from the classroom, and they are juggling education, work and family commitments, she said.

“I can really identify with our students,” Lange said. “I was the first in my family (to go to college), and I had to stop out along the way and work. I was fortunate to have people to encourage me to go back.”

The jobs of the present and future in Seattle, Austin and other cities require more education than in the past. By the year 2020, 65 percent of all jobs in the United States will require a credential beyond high school, according to a study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. By comparison, in 1973, only 28 percent of jobs required a college-level credential, the study said.

President Lange “always says when she sees all that economic activity outside her window, that our role is to be really cognizant of who’s left out of that opportunity,” said Yoshiko Harden, vice president of student services at Seattle Central College.

To serve this new group of students, and to recruit the next group, community colleges are experimenting with new ways to attract, retain and sustain students all the way through to completion of their studies.

In Seattle, that can mean bulked-up resources for counseling and mentoring, advice on obtaining financial aid, new ways to assess readiness and assign course placements, and completion coaches to help guide students to degrees. “Our mission is open access,” Harden said. “Regardless of where you are starting, or where you have been, we make a promise that you can come here and earn a degree.”

At Austin Community College, a relatively new ACCelerator program in a converted shopping mall provides students self-paced, just-in-time help with math. A degree map charts each student’s path to completion, and new open-education resources are being developed so some students can complete an entire degree program without buying a single textbook, according to Richard Rhodes, the college’s president and CEO.

And in Charlotte, officials at Central Piedmont Community College have recruited businesses that invest as much as $175,000 per student in a rigorous apprenticeship program. Central Piedmont also has developed cutting-edge training in engineering and technical programs, and the college has committed new resources to help military veterans make the transition to schooling and civilian life.

    All of these efforts—and countless others across the nation—have a common goal: to better serve the varied needs of today’s students … just like the ones you’ll meet on the following pages.


Rodney Owens: Making Up for Lost Time

CHARLOTTE, N.C.—When Rodney Owens graduated from high school in 1991, his choice seemed clear: go to a four-year college or get a job. Now, decades later, he realizes there are other options, and he’s made it his mission to let young high school graduates know that.


Ivan Fernandez: Realizing a Long-Deferred Dream

SEATTLE—Cesar Ivan Fernandez always thought that if he could get back to school, his life would be better. After dropping out of college, working in several jobs, moving frequently, getting married and trying for years to clarify his immigration status, Fernandez returned to school in 2015 at Seattle Central College. He is now on track […]


Marcia McCallum: Finally, It’s Her Turn

AUSTIN, Texas—Marcia McCallum graduated from high school in 1983. She decided to continue her education 29 years later. A lot of life happened in between.


Chris Mulford: From Deployment to Diploma

CHARLOTTE, N.C.—Chris Mulford was deployed to Jordan and Kuwait with the North Carolina Army National Guard when he decided he needed to plan for the future.


Maliaka White: Making It Stick This Time

SEATTLE—Maliaka White was scared. A single mother of two, she suddenly found herself out of work. That’s when she decided she would try again—for the fourth time—to further her education.


José Cancino: Once a Dropout, Now a Scholar

AUSTIN, Texas—Sometimes it just takes a change of scene to change a life. Just ask José Cancino.


Nick & Lukas Kwiatkowski: An Apprenticeship Brotherhood

STANLEY, N.C.—Nicholas Kwiatkowski gave his younger brother, Lukas, his first job. Lukas later returned the favor, showing Nick a path to a career.