MARENGO – For many working adults, the prospect of returning to college can be daunting.
When Rob Jasinski decided to return to college to get a bachelor's degree after more than a decade in the workforce, it wasn't an easy decision.
The 46-year-old Union resident earned his Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering technology from Milwaukee School of Engineering in November.
Jasinski, who has worked at Nissan Forklift in Marengo for 19 years, said getting the degree was "amazingly difficult." It required taking one course at a time for many years, long drives to and from Milwaukee, countless hours of homework, and time away from his wife Laurie and their three daughters.
Jasinski enrolled at Milwaukee School of Engineering in the fall of 1997. He was 32.
"I missed a lot," he said. "But I'm really enjoying it now."
More and more older students are returning to the classroom. Some are looking to gain additional skills after being laid off in recent years. Others are looking for more money and better job prospects. Whatever the reason, projections show the number of college students over the age of 25 is expected to grow at a faster pace than traditional students between the ages of 18 and 24.
College enrollment for students ages 25 to 34 is projected to increase 20 percent between 2010 and 2021, according to the most recent figures from the National Center for Education Statistics. Enrollment for students 35 and older is projected to increase 25 percent during the same time period. That's compared to a projected 10 percent increase in enrollment for 18 to 24-year-olds. However, enrollment projections for all three student groups were far below previous growth rates recorded from 1996 to 2010, according to the report.
Many schools, including McHenry County College, have made changes to make going back to school easier for older students. Changes include offering more online and night and weekend courses and boosting support services for nontraditional students.
McHenry County College President Vicky Smith has been pushing the school to offer short, stack-able courses that allow students to quickly acquire a certificate that would give them additional employment opportunities while working toward a degree.
Jasinski started on the path to a bachelor's degree at McHenry County College. After getting his associate's degree there, he took a year off before enrolling at Milwaukee School of Engineering.
He had looked into taking courses online, but said, at the time, not enough quality programs were being offered for engineering. He also looked at several colleges in Illinois, but found Milwaukee School of Engineering "had all the right things" he wanted as an adult student.
"If I was going to do it, I was going to do it right," Jasinski said.
Most semesters he took one course at a time, usually making the 85-mile drive to Milwaukee twice a week after a full day of work at Nissan Forklift.
His wife often brought him food at work so he could make it through the long days and nights. On school nights, he returned home to Union around 10 or 11 p.m., only to get up the early the next morning for work.
Other nights, he'd do his homework alongside daughters Allison, Rachael and Courtney.
At one point, Jasinski and his wife sat down and drew up some rough calculations of what all the driving was costing them. They estimated he drove about 140,000 miles over 2,700 hours going back and forth from school and spent about $30,000 on gas.
Despite the long drive, Jasinski said a number of factors made going back to school a bit easier. His company, Nissan Forklift, reimbursed him for tuition costs and his boss allowed him a flexible schedule in order to attend classes.
He also had his family behind him.
"I couldn't have done it without the support of my wife and my kids," Jasinski said.
The biggest challenge for Jasinski was staying on track. He was forced to take some semesters off when the classes he needed weren't available. After a semester off, getting back into the routine of studying, driving, and missing his daughters' sporting events proved difficult.
Jasinski took his classes seriously. He always sat in the front row and took notes, in contrast to some of the younger students who lacked his motivation.
All his hard work paid off. Jasinski made good on his goal to graduate – with a 3.5 grade point average – before his daughters finished high school. Many family members and friends attended his graduation ceremony in November.
"I was elated," he said. "It was a relief to have finally accomplished my goal. I was proud for me and my family."
For other adults considering going back to college, Jasinski encouraged them to study all the available options before picking a school and not to give up.
"It's absolutely worth it," he said. "You just have to stick with it. I stuck with it and it has paid off already."
The degree has given him additional opportunities for promotion at Nissan Forklift. It has also helped inspire his daughters to work hard at school, a lesson they learned from doing their homework alongside him.
"Don't be afraid," he said. "There are a lot of adult students out there."
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Enrollment by age of student:
Enrollment in postsecondary degree-granting institutions of students who are 18 to 24 years old increased 52 percent between 1996 and 2010; and is projected to increase 10 percent between 2010 and 2021.
Enrollment in postsecondary degree-granting institutions of students who are 25 to 34 years old increased 45 percent between 1996 and 2010; and is projected to increase 20 percent between 2010 and 2021.
Enrollment in postsecondary degree-granting institutions of students who are 35 years old and over increased 32 percent between 1996 and 2010; and is projected to increase 25percent between 2010 and 2021.
Source: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics