The Oregonian: Oregon universities see more non-traditional students graduate
Author: Bill Graves, The Oregonian
Posted: June 13, 2011

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Christina Jensen married, graduated from a Portland alternative high school, attended college, dropped out when her husband got home from Iraq, and finally this spring, at age 31, returned to Portland State University to complete her degree in social work.


Like Jensen, a mother of three, a growing share of Oregon students are taking longer, more complicated paths to a college degree.

College is tougher when juggling marriage, children, work and other life events, says Wilkins O'Riley Zinn, an education professor at Southern Oregon University in Ashland.

"A sick child trumps a test sometimes," says Zinn, who earned her degrees later in life.

On some of Oregon's seven public universities, only a minority of students entered the university right out of high school and graduated four years later.

This year 18,896 graduated from state universities, and about 10,600 will participate in commencement this weekend.

Using age as a measure, about 38 percent of undergraduates are non-traditional. The proportion age 25 or older: 21 percent at the University of Oregon; 27 percent at Oregon State University; 60 percent at PSU; and 68 percent at Eastern Oregon University.

Non-traditional students look even higher by another measure -- transfers into the school they are graduating from. For example, one-third of graduates at the University of Oregon and two-thirds at Portland State are transfers. Nearly a fourth of Western Oregon University's graduates are married, and eight married couples will graduate Saturday.

Angelo Meaderds, 49, of La Grande, a counselor for the Oregon Youth Authority, also will graduate Saturday from Eastern Oregon University with a liberal studies degree to make good on a promise to his six children. He told them when one graduated from college, he would return to Eastern. He left it in 1986 after more than three years of classes. One son graduated last year, so the father enrolled at Eastern along with three of his children.

"It feels pretty good," Meaderds says.

Probably the most non-traditional graduate this year will be Granville "Leo" Plass, a 99-year-old Redmond man who left Eastern Oregon University in 1932 about a semester shy of his teaching degree for a career in logging and construction. He'll pick up his associate's degree Saturday.

The Last Mile

PSU launched The Last Mile this school year to find 350 students who quit since 2005 just a few credits shy of graduating. Volunteers found 250 of them, most within 15 credits of graduating. Some were only one credit short.

More than 100 of them graduate this year, including Jensen. Her journey began at Mount Hood Community College. She transferred to PSU and in 2007 she participated in the June commencement -- with plans to earn her final 12 credits that summer.

But her husband was back from Iraq and out of work, and that turmoil forced her to take a break.

Jensen tried to enroll at PSU in 2009 after her husband deployed again, but couldn't until she paid off a $5,500 debt. She qualified for financial aid, but couldn't collect it until she enrolled. She was stuck in a Catch 22.

Then in January a Last Mile volunteer helped her enroll for three courses, two online, to get her degree. Jensen hopes to land a social worker job with the state.

"No matter what happens in life, you can always do it if you want it," she says. "It is a feeling of accomplishment for me."

Oregon's trend to older students follows the rest of the country. The share of enrolled students 25 or older has reached 80 percent or more at some of the nation's colleges and universities. More high school graduates postpone college to earn money and more college students slow down for the same reason. The recession also drove more people back to get skills and credentials for better jobs.

Meggan McLarrin, 27, Coos Bay, will graduate with a degree in psychology from Eastern Oregon University, a decade after dropping out of Forest Grove High School.

She married, had two children, earned two associate's degrees from Southwestern Oregon Community College and enrolled in Eastern's online program. She earned her bachelor's without ever setting foot on the La Grande campus.

Not that it was easy. Three years ago, she took a final exam at Eastern's Coos Bay center while in early labor. On the eve of her wedding, she was up until 3 a.m. studying for a final.

"It doesn't matter what is going on in your life," says McLarrin, who wants to go on for a doctorate. "If you really want your degree, you'll push through for it."

The $10-an-hour blues

Aimee Axtell, 26, of Klamath Falls, went to work as an office receptionist out of high school, but she became a single mom a year later and decided she needed a degree.

"I knew I couldn't make it on $10 an hour," she says, "and I knew getting educated was the only way I was going to do any better."

She started six years ago at Rogue Community College in Grants Pass, where she lived with her mother, and will finish Saturday in Klamath Falls when she picks up bachelor's degrees in psychology and in dental hygiene from the Oregon Institute of Technology.

For two terms, she drove 200 miles roundtrip three times a week from Grants Pass to OIT. Sometimes she would study until 2 a.m. after putting her boy to bed, and then get up four hours later for another trip to Klamath Falls.

"You never know what you can do until you have to do it," says Axtell, who is now looking for a job as a dental hygienist.

Pedro Pacheco Mendoza, 25, says he simply followed his friends eight years ago to Blue Mountain Community College high school in Boardman.

"No one talked to me about college," says Mendoza, who immigrated from Mexico at age 12 and became a U.S. citizen in 2008.

He worked in food processing plants while attending Blue Mountain. He quit school at one point to help his family after their mobile home burned up. He quit again after his 1989 Nissan could no longer make the 90-mile commute to Pendleton.

He finally transferred to the University of Oregon, where he will be the first member of his family to earn a bachelor's degree. His parents, brothers, sisters, cousins, nieces, nephews -- about 30 in all -- will be there Monday to watch him pick up his degree in family and human services.

"It has been worth it because I made my family proud, not only my family, but my community," he says. "They didn't give up on me. They saw something in me that I didn't see...It was all worth it because I'm going to be able to give back."