The Second Time Around

Changes in economy force more parents to return to college

Jennifer McCormack followed the “normal” steps to college the first time around. She graduated from high school and headed to Kingsborough Community College to pursue an associate degree. Sixty credits later, she should have been ready to graduate. But McCormick’s grade point average fell short of the college’s requirements.

A single mom at the time, McCormack said she just couldn’t juggle it all. That was then. Nearly a decade later, McCormack works full-time at a bank in Jeffersonville, is married, has two children … and is back in college.

“Things were panning out pretty well for me but there was still something left undone and it was my education. It still bothered me eight years later that all I could say was that I had 60 college credits,” she explained.

So she decided to look into college. Living in Liberty, where she purchased her first home in 2000, McCormack went to Sullivan County Community College in 2005 to see what she could do to get back on track. Of her 60 credits from Kingsborough, she was told only 30 would transfer. She’d have to redo a year of what she’d done fresh out of high school.

“Because it was so important for me to complete my degree I came to terms with what needed to be done,” she said, “and enrolled full time for the spring semester, which I began in January 2006.”
Attending her first class, McCormack became one of an estimated 58 percent of college students in America who are past "traditional" college age. Today, the average college student is 27 years old according to a study done by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

McCormack is part of a growing national trend. A 2007 study by the Center For An Urban Future found adult enrollment in the state’s colleges dipped by one-fifth between 1995 and 2005, even as the number of high school graduates heading straight to college jumped by one-quarter. That dip will likely come to an end as more and more adults like McCormack head back to college.

The biggest problems for a lot of these parents is “juggling classes and homework with childcare responsibilities,” says Terri Needle, a professor and college counselor who works with the STARS program (Service to Adult Returning Students) at Rockland Community College in Suffern. “They have to juggle getting kids off to school, doing their homework, getting dinner on the table . . .”
It takes a dedicated work ethic, but it can be done.

“It was important that my children and husband remained my priority and that the time I had dedicated to school did not interfere with the role I played in all of their lives,” McCormack says of her experience. “My husband has been an incredible support system for me and had picked up much of my slack at home. My children have been amazingly patient with me and dealing with my time constraints. I make strong efforts to spend time with them first and put my studies second. That means very long nights for me because I begin my studies after they are in bed.”

It’s also costly. New York’s community colleges are sixth in the nation in tuition costs to the student, almost 50 percent higher than the national average. Most adult students in the state work at least part-time, but monies go to helping put food on the table. The state’s Tuition Assistance Program is open to them, but few working parents qualify because the New York State Legislature requires they attend college full time in at least the first year. 

So why do they do it? For moms like McCormack, it’s as much for their kids as it is themselves.
“I want my children to know how education is valued in our home,” she says. “My parents have always encouraged me and my siblings to obtain a college education.  The same values my parents instilled in me I instill in my children.”

It’s working. Her daughter now refers to McCormack, who is set to graduate from Mount St. Mary College in Newburgh in May and will follow it up with graduate school enrollment, as a “supermom.”

“At first, I went back to college to have a degree to validate my credentials, but after I began classes at some point it became more about my own personal satisfaction,” McCormack says. “It is something I worked hard to achieve and no one can take it away from me. Unintentionally, I became the best role model for both my children because they witness how hard I work to ‘do it all.’ ” Just as big a factor for some mothers is pursuing their own dreams – so their kids have a
happy mom.

Janayna Brockner of North Branch already had a degree in graphic arts when she decided to head to cosmetology school. Her elder son was 7 months old at the time, but Brockner said she never wavered.
“I knew I had it in me, and I didn’t want to look back one day and regret that I didn’t at least try,” she says. “It might not work out, but I tried. For me, it worked. I love what I do. I’m happy with what I do.”

She spent the two years it took to get her degree attending school part-time, working part-time and spending as much time with baby Dylan as she could. “It was almost like being a full-time working mom. My days off, I was with him,” she says. “He was definitely my number one priority. That’s my advice to parents – always find that five, 10 minutes to spend with your kid. Whether you play a game, whether it’s a book, make the time for them.”

McCormack says parents need to prepare themselves, and their families for what the next few years are going to be like. “Your family may not initially support your decision because that decisions effects their daily routine as much as your own,” she says. “Communicate with them and explain how important it would be if they could be supportive of your decision it makes a world of difference.  Schedule your time carefully and you will be able to do it all!”

And when in doubt, turn to the schools for help. Counselors are on staff at online schools, trade schools and traditional colleges, and they’re there to help. “Adult learners think you’re going to tell them when they have to take their classes because the last time they went to school they where told when and how to do everything,” Needle says. “College is now working its way around the person’s life instead of the person having to work their way around the college life.”

Jeanne Sager is a freelance writer and mom from Sullivan County. She writes daily for and at her own site,