Cathy Ettenhofer entered the work force as a hairdresser in 1967, left it to raise two sons and now stands one semester shy of a degree in social work from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. The 45-year-old student plans to become a geriatric social worker, probably in a nursing home.
She says her desire to help finance college for her sons and to find a spiritually rewarding career brought her to college in 1988 -- and will send her on to graduate school.
This fall, college campuses across the nation will welcome millions of older, "non-traditional" students who are eager for career changes as well as for the extra money that a college -- or advanced -- degree can provide.
At UMBC, roughly a third of the students are 25 or older. At Towson State University, these students represent 28 percent of the population. At Morgan State University, it's 18 percent. At University of Maryland, College Park, 16 percent.
At Western Maryland College, a private school in Westminster, it's 10 percent. At Essex Community College, it's 49 percent.
Older students tend to flock to community colleges and state universities because the tuition is lower than at private institutions.
"Non-trads, as we call them, are very motivated and excited about being at college," says Martha O'Connell, director of admissions for Western Maryland College. "They are very vocal and challenging to the professors."
Many of today's older students are studying to enter such public service professions as social work and teaching.
"It's perceived that returning adult students are looking upon teaching as a good career move, that there are more job opportunities and/or more job security," says Marilyn Smith, acting director of the Career Center at the University of Maryland, College Park. "I also think you see a resurgence of people interested in serving the community. This is a way of combining both goals."
Henry Schindler, 42, is a nursing student at Towson State University. After devoting a number of years to sales -- he was a division manager for several wineries in California and part owner of The Wine Shoppe in Reisterstown -- he decided to change careers. A Vietnam vet, Mr. Schindler says he would eventually like to work for the Veterans Administration.
Changing careers by returning to college is a growing trend among older students, especially those who lost jobs during the recession.
According to local college administrators, the profile of the typical older student has changed during the past 20 years. In the 1970s and early 1980s, returning students tended to be women who were seeking college degrees for intellectual and emotional fulfillment. Now, they are more apt to be single parents who need the extra income and opportunities that college -- or advanced -- degrees can provide.
Barbara Goldberg, one of the co-ordinators of the Returning Students Program of the university's Counseling Center, says older students worry about their academic abilities, the cost of their education -- and managing their other responsibilities.
"Returning students are very often serving multiple roles. They have families and jobs, they are often taking care of parents as well as children. Very few of them are just "full-time" students," she says.
Barbara Kozlowski-Pedevillano, a student at the University of Maryland, College Park hopes her degree in elementary education will support her family and allow her ample time with her two daughters. Recently divorced, she and her children are living with her parents in College Park while she finishes her courses. She also holds a part-time job at the university.
"It's been hard," she says. "Every semester, there comes a point -- with the kids at home and the bills mounting up and the exams at school -- when I've felt like throwing in the towel . . . But I can't expect my children to do well at school if I'm not doing well myself. They inspect my report card. That's incentive."