Yesterday College Guide ran a piece about nontraditional college students and how some are asserting that these students may make up the most important group on which to focus if the United States aims to get a significantly higher number of people through college.

According to a piece in the Marietta Times, one local middle-aged woman is working on getting her college degree. This story is meant to be inspiring, but the lesson turns out to be rather complicated. In the article Kate York writes:

After postponing her dream of going to college for decades as she raised four children and worked as a secretary, bus driver and teacher’s aide, Cheryl Thomas earned her associate degree last spring and is now pursuing a bachelor’s degree.

“She’s a wonderful example,” said Frontier Local Schools Superintendent Bruce Kidder. “She decided to do this now and is working very hard toward it.”

It’s not at all easy, however. Thomas is working full time, so “I got it online through Phoenix University because working full time I don’t have the time to drive to Parkersburg or Marietta for classes.”

She’s presumably talking about the University of Phoenix, the for-profit school based in Arizona. Her associate degree, therefore, cost about $13,000 a year.

An associate degree from the local Washington State Community College, in Marietta, Ohio, costs less than $3,000 a year. But that community college degree doesn’t work on Thomas’s schedule. She didn’t say what level of debt she’s assuming to get her education but she says that she’ll probably “be paying loans until I’m old and gray.” She’s 51 now.

Thomas is a little unclear on her career goals (“It’s not so that I can get a certain job,” she says) but she’s currently taking courses in business management and teaching.

But despite the school superintendent saying that she’s a wonderful example, and the fact that Thomas has actually worked for the Frontier Local School District for 20 years, she still won’t be licensed to teach in Ohio with the Phoenix degree.

Thomas’s situation is typical. It’s this sort of thing that demonstrates precisely how hard it’s going to be to really improve education for nontraditional students. People like Thomas have ambition and are willing to work very hard to get an education, but that’s not usually good enough.

The trouble is that the education offered doesn’t, without considerable additional outside effort, really work so well for them. [Image via]

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer