Kick-Start Your Next Career

Options abound for adults seeking a new degree for a new career

By Dwain Hebda 


Jill Simons, associate vice chancellor for undergraduate studies at Arkansas State University, has seen a lot of changes come to higher education in her 20+ years with the school. But nothing was as instructive as when she decided to return to the classroom to pursue her doctorate, after a 15-year absence. 

“It really made me aware of the adult student’s plight,” she said. “When students talk about daycare needs or work schedules, I understand that much more having been an adult learner. 

“There’s so many different things that [adult students are] trying to tackle. We live in a pretty complicated world and people do a lot of things in addition to going to school. Life has started; they’re right in the middle of mortgages and families that are priorities as well as school. As an administrator, I always want to be cognizant of that.” 

Simons is one of millions of non-traditional college students in the United States, a fast-growing demographic. Many institutions have programs especially for adult learners and some, like the University of Arkansas Fort Smith, have an entire department devoted to their success.

“We held focus groups just last week as part of an institutional effort to become more accommodating to our nontraditional students,” said Jennifer Holland, UAFS executive director for student retention. “We are doing many things right, but there’s more we can do to help them.”

“Most [nontraditional] students we surveyed are intimidated by college,” said John Post, UAFS director of public information. “At first, they have trouble finding a sense of belonging, because they’re surrounded by traditional students. So we have student organizations on campus for non-traditional students and veterans to help build a sense of community. Once they get here and get a semester or two under their belt, a lot of them ultimately feel a sense of belonging.” 

For some schools, this is nothing new. Dr. Elizabeth Sloan Davidson, associate professor and interim department chairperson for UALR’s nursing department, said issues facing adult learners have always been a primary focus. 

“We’re basically a commuter school,” she said. “Most of our students in the nursing department don’t live on campus, although some do. A lot of them are married or are single parents. Maybe they’ve already made a not-successful first run in college. They’re coming back to try it again now that they’ve grown up a little bit. 

“We’re seeing a very wide range of demographics; average age is around 28, but we have both ends of the spectrum from the first-time freshman age 18 to the 65-year-old.”

Dr. Marico Bryant Howe, dean of sciences, mathematics and allied health at UA Pulaski Tech, echoed this view. The bulk of UAPTC’s students are nontraditional and are coming back to school from various situations, she said. Among them, those who never finished college [or high school] to those who are looking to reboot after raising their kids.

“Some students made career choices and now they’re deciding that’s not something they really want to do,” she said. “It’s time for them to change their career field to something they really want to do.”


Those adult learners find programs tailored to their lifestyle in fields that are in extremely high demand. Allied health fields, for example, abound.

“Allied health has tons of positions; there’s probably 40 to 50 training programs in Central Arkansas alone,” said Dr. Judy Pile, chancellor of Baptist Health College in Little Rock. “People could work in the O.R. Or it could be in a lab. It could be something where they are deeply involved in patient care, or something where they’re not. It’s really quite varied.”

So much so, in fact, that new adult learners frequently need help sorting through their options, Pile said. 

“There are some positions that are pretty well-known, like X-ray techs,” she said. “But there are other roles, like a medical laboratory scientist, where people may not know exactly what a person would do. Or our histotechnology program; most people have never heard of that. We usually have to educate quite a bit on what the role does and who would be a good fit in the program and in the profession.”

Technology has also played a major role in the rise of adult learners. Today, colleges and universities support robust online programs to lure nontraditional students. 

“We used to offer an organizational management degree; it was designed for people who just needed to finish,” said Aaron Abbott, director of graduate and online undergraduate enrollment management with John Brown University. “They had part of their stuff, but they didn’t have the full degree, so they found themselves needing to complete to compete.” 

“Once we got into the online game, we had a lot of people, professionals, who needed a degree to move up. Our online program allows people to complete their degree anywhere. They don’t have to stop their life in order to go back to sitting in the typical class setting for several hours.”

Technology has also helped colleges and universities bring more resources to students on satellite campuses as with UAMS and its Northwest Arkansas campus in Fayetteville. UAMS also collaborates with other institutions in the state to deliver high-quality instruction to an ever-widening swath of students. 

“We’ve entered into a joint occupational therapy program with the U of A that will be split between the two campuses,” said Dr. Susan Long, dean of health professions. “Our speech path program is a joint program between UAMS and UALR and our Ph.D. in communication sciences and disorders is a consortium between UAMS, UALR and UCA.”

Such educational programs are only as good as they are marketable, of course, and on this measurement, UAMS also shines. The school boasts a high rate of placement for its graduates, thanks to the level of skill students gain during their intensive education.

“The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the vast majority of [health science] fields will grow 15 to 20 percent over the next 10 years and several even exceed that,” Long said. “When you look at our programs, health sciences, we’re everywhere.”