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Adults just like you are going to college to earn a degree

This month, thousands of graduates of the Class of 2006 will don their caps and gowns, proudly walk across the stage and receive their diplomas. And many of those graduates won't be the traditional image of 20-somethings preparing for their first full-time jobs or families.

They will be adults who have gone back to school, sometimes decades after their careers and kids got in the way of their educations.

As the job market becomes increasingly competitive and rapidly changing technology becomes a key part of many careers, going back for a bachelor's, master's or specialist's degree has become an essential part of furthering one's career.

That doesn't mean it's easy. Unlike most students in their teens and 20s, many older students have a laundry list of responsibilities: children to support, a full-time job, a mortgage and endless errands.

That was one of administrators' main considerations when Spring Hill College opened its campus in Norcross this year. It started offering a variety of bachelor's and master's degree programs in January. Students are only required to take one four-hour night class per week, minimizing the stress of finding child care or navigating rush hour traffic.

"They've weighed out every option. They've come up with every excuse. And they finally decide to do it," said Nicole Henderson, the college's director of marketing and recruiting. "A lot of times they think: 'There's nobody like me who has that same situation,' but usually everyone is like that."

One way colleges try to accommodate older students is to offer them flexibility in when and where they do their coursework. In the past five years, online campuses have exploded in their popularity, [and] increasingly, local colleges are looking toward hybrid classrooms, which combine aspects of both on-line education and traditional courses.

Georgia Gwinnett College, the state's newest four-year college, will be a pioneer in the development of hybrid courses, said Gordon Harrison, vice president of advancement. Though the school plans to focus on its traditional students, it is using some of the same tools that have appealed to adult students because of their flexibility.

At Gwinnett Technical College, nontraditional students actually make up the majority, and the school has worked to accommodate them. Of their enrolled students, 51 percent are older than 26, and 53 percent have prior college experience.

Many students go back to school because it has become essential in many fields to be both versatile and have specialized skills, said Sharon Rigsby, president of Gwinnett Tech.

"It's becoming more and more common for people to realize that your employability is up to you as an individual. And you just have to keep going back and updating your knowledge and skills," Rigsby said.

-Edited from a May 14, 2006 article of the Gwinnet Daily Post

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