Charting a New Course

More moms are hitting the books and returning to school as nontraditional students, and—with her kid as motivation—Sherwood mom Whitney Sims aims for the top of the class.

By Dwain Hebda

Mom goes back to college

Every day, Whitney Sims wakes in the here and now and catches a glimpse of an elusive, yet sharply-focused snapshot of her future. The 28-year-old Sherwood native does things that typical moms do—she interacts with her 6-year-old daughter, WryLeigh, and works several hours a week at her job.

And, like a growing number of people—women in particular—she musters up the energy and mental focus to leave her daughter in the arms of her folks four days and two evenings a week for class at Baptist Health College in Little Rock where she's a few months into a 12-month course of study in sleep technology.

Ironic, considering sleep is about the least of her luxuries. But Sims can take the long hours and the fatigue knowing why she's doing it. "When you have a 6-year-old who you want to provide an amazing life for," she said, explaining her drive, "she is the ultimate prize to stare at whenever you’re trying to get through something. That face is there no matter what.

"It's not accurate to call Sims a returning college student; counting online courses she never really stopped except right after her daughter was born. But a combination of disinterest in the educational process, lack of motivation and just real life delayed her getting a degree. Today, she's considered "nontraditional," a term generally applied to any undergrad over the age of 25.

She's also the only woman in class with a child, a difference that doesn’t faze her much although it does bubble to the surface every now and again. "[Classmates] don’t really understand," she said. "They’ll be blowing up my phone about trying to review for a test or asking questions and they’re like, 'Where are you?' And I’m like, I’m trying to read my kid a book or do bath time or we’re at cheerleading. I’m trying to juggle her homework, my homework, getting wherever we need to go and back."

Mom goes back to college

She takes a deep breath. "It was kind of a shell shock to me to be in that environment where I’m the only one with a kid," she said. "No one really gets it."

According to numbers from the National Center for Education Statistics, about 20.5 million students entered college in the fall of 2016, up about 5.2 million from 2000. (Women out numbered men, by the way, 11.7 million to 8.8 million, a ratio that is projected to continue into at least 2025.) What's changing fastest is the age breakdown of those millions of students. While 18- to 24-year-olds are the majority at 12.2 million, it's by a much narrower margin than 20 or even 10 years ago. This means the nontraditional student has a louder voice in higher education these days and higher education is listening carefully.

For institutions that have always served the nontraditional segment of the market, such as the University of Arkansas-Pulaski Technical College, none of this is news.

"The tendency for nontraditional students to be attracted to a two-year college education has remained steady," said Tim Jones, associate vice chancellor of public relations and marketing. "Our average age right now is 28 and we have a pretty strong student population in their 30s and 40s." In a U.S. News & World Report survey, nearly a quarter of nontraditional students said flexible scheduling was their top preferences for attending an institution of higher learning. Second was online courses at 12 percent, followed closely by career center resources and personalized instruction, at 11 percent each.

 Jones said UA-PTC checks all of these boxes, as well as cutting the time to completion in half, which is particularly important to a student population looking to put that degree to work as quickly and economically as possible.

"Convenience and cost are definitely major factors that draw people to [two-year] colleges," he said. "That’s all the more true for people who are in a position to kind of reboot their lives. "We get a lot of people who had a false start, professionally. Maybe they went to college for two or three semesters and dropped out, maybe they started a family really early and then here it is, 10 years down the line and they're seeing that their prospects are limited by their lack of education."

Sims can relate to this assessment, saying part of the reason it took so long to get on track was lack of commitment to a clear goal in life. She said the Whitney of today bears little resemblance to the Whitney fresh out of high school.

"Back then it was just kind of, 'Oh this is college, this is fun, I can go get Starbucks before class,'" she said. "And now it’s like, OK, you have to do this, you have to get through this, you have to pass with flying colors and get yourself a job because you have to support your family."

 "When I was 18, I didn’t care. I was spending my dad’s money on tuition, my dad’s money on gas, my dad’s money on Starbucks. I didn’t care. I was just kind of doing it because that’s what I was supposed to do. And I think that’s why it took me so long to figure out what I wanted, because I was just doing it because I thought that’s what I was supposed to be doing."

Baptist Health College Little Rock's 12-month program is so rigorous that completing it earns the equivalent of a two-year degree. Motivation and drive alone don't always cover the bases, Sims admits. She frequently deals with what she calls "mommy guilt" for leaving her daughter with her parents to attend class, which runs nearly six hours three days a week, plus four-hour clinicals two nights per week. Add in a 45-minute drive each way and her days leave little room for error or emergencies.

"The other day something happened and I had to leave class. You’re freaking out as a parent because I’m almost an hour away from my kid," she said. "That’s a totally different dynamic of being in class versus being online, because now I’m on a tight schedule. If I’m five minutes off in the morning, my whole day will just kind of unravel."

Sims said the support of her family and the tough love of her program director have been invaluable and she's determined to be at the head of the class come June graduation. From here, she has her eye on an advanced degree that will allow her to become a researcher of sleep disorders. She also hopes to set an example for others to follow along the way.

"Sometimes one person can change someone else’s life and they don’t even have to meet them. Maybe I’ll be that for someone," she said. "If she's out there, she needs to look real hard at that angel face and make the decision that she’s going to do it. Once she puts her mind to it and says 'I’m doing this for my child, I’m going to give us a better life,' it becomes the only priority."