Forget famous professors, bulging course catalogs, and ivy-cloaked campuses. It's extras like on-campus child care, evening office hours, and commuter lounges that count most with a growing breed of undergraduates: the independent or ''nontraditional" student.
Public universities and private ones, many of which did little for these students in the past, are scrambling to accommodate them because their numbers have become far too large to ignore. Broadly defined as financially independent, working adults, nontraditional students age 25 and up now make up 38 percent of postsecondary enrollment, compared with 28 percent in 1970, according to US Department of Education estimates. On many campuses, they have become the majority. Only about a quarter of the nation's 14.9 million undergraduates fit the ''traditional" mold of enrolling right out of high school, attending full time, and relying on their parents' purse strings.
''We have this island of mature adults in a sea of kids," said Bradley Keith, 41, who just completed his bachelor's degree at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, which gives nontraditional students preferential placement in classes to accommodate work schedules. ''It's the little things like that that really make a big difference."
Keith, who starts working on an MBA this fall, just stepped down as secretary of UNH's nontraditional student organization. One of the group's main purposes is to combat the isolation older students often feel.
''You're among these 18-year-olds, not living on campus," said Keith. ''You don't end up really meeting anybody. You come to class and go home."
The UNH group that Keith helped run sponsors river cruises and other get-togethers and keeps a small lounge in the student union that is open 24/7. In the lounge, the nontraditional students, who make up roughly 8 percent of undergraduate enrollment, can meet for coffee, microwave a dinner, get computer help, and scan message boards for child care, rides, or party alerts.
At the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, students 23 or older can live on a separate, ''typically quiet" dorm floor with year-round occupancy. The university's ''University Without Walls" degree program gives credit for life experience and holds classes on weekends as another lure, and Michael Gargano Jr., vice chancellor for Student Affairs and Campus Life, sends monthly e-mails alerting adult students to events they might miss darting to class.
''We try to really connect the students to the university and the university to the student," he said.
For Tanja A. Walter, 38, finding a university welcoming and convenient for a working mother of one was key after losing her marketing job three years ago. She lived near several colleges, including Brown, Wheaton, and the University of Rhode Island, but most lacked the amenities she sought.
Bridgewater State, the school she picked, offered on-campus day care with nine enrollment options and a commuter lounge. Students who are parents get first priority at the accredited child-care center and subsidized rates. Walter pays $480 a month for a full-time spot.
''What it came down to is: Where can I go to take care of my education and my family?" said Walter, whose 3-year-old often keeps her waiting for a half-hour because she enjoys the Children's Center so much. ''There wasn't anything that offered a better program, a better child-care center, or a better package."
Responsiveness to adult students still remains the exception on too many campuses, said Mary Bulla, executive director of the Association of Non-Traditional Students in Higher Education. ''There are still lots and lots of struggles," Bulla said. ''We need child care. We need scholarships. We need support from the administration, and we need separate meeting places, our own lounges with a telephone where we can call the kids at home."
Blessed with a surfeit of 18-year-old applicants each season, most brand-name schools have little incentive to change, said Susan Porter Robinson, director of the American Council on Education's Center for Lifelong Learning. Faculty can impede progress as well: Credits for previous coursework or life experience would be an easier sell if professors acknowledged that their subject could be covered as rigorously elsewhere.
Customizing programs to fit adult learning styles and schedules ''can be a very big jolt to many traditional institutions" because it requires money and shifting schedules, said David O. Justice, DePaul University's vice president for lifelong learning and suburban campuses.
Even when a university has an adult-friendly program or atmosphere, finding that school isn't always easy. Carlette J. Hardin, professor of education at Tennessee's Austin Peay State University and author of ''100 Things Every Adult College Student Ought to Know,'' recommends plugging ''nontraditional student" or ''adult learner" into a university website to see what kinds of resources pop up.
''If you see links, that means they've thought about it," she said.
No amount of research, though, can reveal just how much support a student could get. Lucy R. Lopez, 46, a divorced mother of two from Fremont, Calif., found out about Smith College's Ada Comstock Scholar program for older women by word of mouth. Peer advisers, all older female students, helped her line up child care for her 4-year-old by e-mail before the pair drove to Northampton. They supplied furniture and toys for her apartment, and buoyed her through thyroid cancer treatments -- the disease was detected during a checkup. ''I had so much coaching along the way, I never felt like my family was 3,000 miles away," said Lopez, who is earning a bachelor's degree.
Greta A. Douglas, 35, found a support network in Simmons College's Dix Scholars program. The Boston native went to college right after high school, but was unprepared for its rigors and dropped out. As a Dix Scholar, Douglas discovered dozens of other older students happy to help and received financial aid and academic counseling. ''I feel unstoppable," said Douglas, who intends to pursue a doctorate after graduating next year and then start her own school. ''I just feel like I'm 10,000 percent better of a woman. There's not a challenge I can't face."