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Some Scholars Take Slow Road to Graduation

Older students juggle family and work obligations while continuing their quest for a college diploma.

June 21, 2005|Stuart Silverstein | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Twenty-five years after beginning college, Sean O'Leary is a fresh graduate of San Francisco State University with a bachelor's degree in social science.

For O'Leary, 43, a graveyard-shift patrol sergeant with the San Francisco Police Department, the quarter-century journey was anything but a leisurely stroll through academia.

First, his studies were interrupted in the 1980s by, among other things, a four-year stint in the Marines and a divorce. Then, after resuming college in the early 1990s, O'Leary squeezed in two courses nearly every fall and spring semester while holding down his police job and helping raise four children. His graduation in late May was "a long time in coming" and "a relief," O'Leary said.

At recent college commencement ceremonies, gray hair was on display along with the caps and gowns, and not just from faculty and administrators. The latest federal numbers show that about one-fifth of graduates nationwide are long-term students who took more than twice as many years to earn bachelor's degrees as classmates on the traditional four-year plan.

Urban Campuses

The abundance of students taking extended paths to graduation is particularly noticeable at urban, largely commuter schools such as San Francisco State and others in the 23-campus California State University system. The nation's largest public university system, Cal State graduates far more long-term students than the University of California or leading private schools. Its campuses attract older students with evening classes, comparatively low fees and, sometimes, child care.

"We're a bootstrap kind of institution," said Jo Volkert, an associate vice president at San Francisco State. "We want to embrace the person who ... maybe didn't make it the first time around and wants to come back and try again. That's just our nature."

Research on these students remains scarce. But among the nation's 1.2 million bachelor's degree recipients in the 1999-2000 school year, the most recent for which federal statistics are available, 19% graduated more than eight years after entering college. That share is up slightly from 18% seven years earlier.

In addition, the portion of bachelor's degree recipients in the traditional age category of 23 or younger was 56.5% nationally in 1999-2000, down from 64% seven years earlier. The Cal State system has many fewer graduates in the traditional age category: In 1999-2000, only 26.3% of Cal State bachelor's degree graduates were 23 or younger.

University administrators and other experts say the older graduates reflect many different experiences, with most defying the time-honored image of the "perpetual" or "professional" student drifting from class to class.

Some long-termers temporarily dropped out of school or studied part time to raise children, and others had their studies delayed by the demands of jobs. Still others appear to have been slowed by divorces or other personal crises, as well as by moves from one part of the country to another. Students at Cal State campuses and at other schools sometimes complain that they are delayed because they can't get seats in crowded, required classes.

The one common theme, researchers say, is that these students persist. "They are focused on goals, and they're going to get there, no matter how long it takes," said Clifford Adelman, a senior research analyst for the U.S. Department of Education.

Jesus Leyva, 27, graduated from Cal State San Bernardino on Sunday, eight years after beginning his college studies there. Leyva, who moved to California from Mexico with his parents at age 3, is the first in his family to attend college and called it "one of the best experiences of my life."

Yet like many long-term students, Leyva took a break from school -- a year -- to work in a food service job at a casino. "I was getting pretty good money. But after a while, I realized this was the most I would be making," Leyva said. He opted to return to college and pursue a business career with more opportunity for advancement.

His time on campus also was extended because he changed majors. Leyva first chose international business, thinking that it would be a field in which he could take advantage of his fluency in Spanish, but he didn't enjoy the classes.

Eventually, he settled on a double major in marketing and management. Now, with his degree, Leyva said, "I feel I'll be one step ahead of the average person."

San Francisco State, a compact campus of just over 100 acres on the southwestern edge of the city, includes many long-term undergraduates in its 28,000-student body.

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