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Lawrence Harmon

A new kind of student

By Lawrence Harmon
March 16, 2010

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COLLEGE ACCEPTANCE and rejection letters will be arriving in the mail in the coming days, launching high school seniors into the joyous or consoling embrace of parents. But many prospective college students aren’t watching anxiously for the mail carrier. Instead, they are busy attending to the needs of their own children and workplaces.

The traditional 18- to 22-year-old residing on campus is no longer the norm. Almost three-quarters of undergraduates fall into the “nontraditional’’ category, according to a 2002 National Center for Education Statistics report, meaning they work full time, are financially independent, attend college part time, or didn’t go directly from high school to higher education. For these nontraditional college students, a foreign adventure abroad is more likely to mean deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan than exploring the medieval Gothic quarter in Barcelona. College isn’t just for children anymore.

As a member of the Boston Police gang unit, Dennis Medina, 39, tries to settle arguments peacefully on his 4 p.m. to midnight shift. On his nights off, he attends classes at Bunker Hill Community College in Charlestown, where he is learning to structure persuasive arguments in his English II writing class. Medina passed briefly through Bunker Hill about 20 years ago after graduating from Jamaica Plain High School. But he admits he spent more time playing ping pong in the student lounge than hitting the books. He dropped out and went to work as a correction officer until joining the Police Department in 2003.

“I’m on the 30-year plan for an associate’s degree,’’ said Medina, a husband and father of three. He’s not alone. More than two-thirds of Bunker Hill students attend part time. And the demand for classes is so great at the 11,700-student campus that administrators now offer three courses that run from midnight to 2:45 a.m.

Medina was chosen from 200 contestants to be one of five nontraditional college students appearing in an upcoming documentary video series called “Take America to College.’’ The series is the creation of Purple States, a media company that specializes in producing and distributing videos that show the connections between citizens and policy challenges. Medina’s self-made video, like others at takeamericatocollege.com, deserves the attention of policy makers and educators who are wrestling with ways to increase graduation rates and make college more affordable. The video makers also hope to sway Congress, where debate is underway on increasing grants and loans for nontraditional students.

It’s not just a matter of economic survival for the students. Colleges are competing for a declining number of high school students. Educators don’t need to mimic the University of Phoenix online campus, which enrolls more students than any college in America. But college administrators can’t be feeling good that so many of their high-priced campuses look like fantasy lands to the majority of the nation’s seekers of higher education. Flexible payment plans, more weekend classes, and better policies on transfer credits and leaves of absence would help get the attention of nontraditional students.

Some of the Purple States auditions give instant insight into the challenges of nontraditional students. Randi Cruz, a Florida mother of three, is in her first semester at Valencia Community College in Orlando. The 28-year-old Navy veteran can barely narrate her self-made video without her children crawling over her or thrusting sippy cups in front of the camera lens. For Cruz, success in her coursework depends less on her own motivation and more on whether someone is “getting an earache that night or having a tooth coming in.’’

The Gates Foundation is investing in efforts to double the number of nontraditional students like Cruz who earn postsecondary degrees or credentials with “genuine marketplace value.’’ In Boston, that can take on layers of meaning. Medina, for example, is eligible to earn a 10 percent boost in pay for earning an associate’s degree in criminal justice and 20 percent for a bachelor’s degree. But cash-strapped state officials are backing away from their contribution to the program while cities and towns complain that some criminal justice degrees were products of diploma mills.

Medina said he would pursue his degree with or without the prospect of an immediate pay bonus. College level courses, he said, still put him in a better position to compete on promotional examinations.

“It’s a chance to better myself,’’ said Medina.

Most students are looking beyond the time-worn, four-year college experience for precisely that chance.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at harmon@globe.com.