Untraditional Students Essay

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Untraditional Students

"What can a college education offer me?" Contemplating a return to school after years of childrearing and paid labor is both daunting and invigorating. Entering college as an adult is a life-changing decision. It requires shifts in perception that jar us out of the familiar patterns of our lives.

The American Association of Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) reports that the enrollment of adults aged 25 and above has risen dramatically over the past two decades. Adult students now make up 42 percent of all college graduates. What motivates these students? What do they hope to gain from their college educations and what do they actually receive?

For many returning students, the motivation is economic.
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The traditional view of education as a well-rounded preparation for a variety of endeavors has been replaced by a market-driven mentality that focuses on equipping students with the specialized skills they will need to perform a particular task. Computer programming, business, and engineering degrees are examples of specialized avenues into financially rewarding careers. Nursing, teaching, and social work, the traditional "women's occupations," are less well-compensated but still fairly stable career paths. Should we all enter school, then, knowing just what doors we want to walk through? Is economic practicality the yardstick by which we must measure the success of our educations?

Guidance counselor Anne Murphy, head of advising at the University of Arkansas' Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences, takes a different approach. Murphy feels strongly that keeping an emphasis on process, rather than product, leads to the greatest fulfillment. She fears that students who are overly focused on their preset ends may deny themselves the opportunity to let their educations do what they are designed to do--open us to a deeper, broader understanding of our places within the larger scheme of things.

This brings us back to that traditional, all-encompassing vision of education. Columnist Sydney J. Harris, writing about the ideas of Greek philosopher Socrates, describes education as a "drawing out of what is in the mind." In other words, an education is an

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