The last time I had a full-time job, I didn't own a cell phone, the tech boom was creating millionaires by the hour, and security badges were worn only by security guards.

The last time I had a full-time job, I didn't own a cell phone, the tech boom was creating millionaires by the hour, and security badges were worn only by security guards.

As a stay-at-home mom and freelance writer for nearly 10 years, I knew I eventually wanted to get back to the "real world," one day.

Last spring I took that first step by going back to school. I did some online research, talked to an adviser and enrolled at Columbus State Community College. I already had a bachelor's degree, but I needed to enhance my skills and learn new ones so my resume could make it to the top of someone's slush pile.

It turns out I'm not alone. This past fall, more than 40 percent of the 24,000 students enrolled at Columbus State were age 25 or older. And that's just one local college.

All over central Ohio, colleges and universities are courting nontraditional students in unconventional ways.

Thanks to online courses, night and weekend offerings, flexible scheduling and other amenities, returning to higher learning is more manageable for parents than it was just 10 years ago.

At Franklin University the average age of undergraduates is 33, said Sherry Mercurio, director of public relations. "They're looking to either complete a degree that they've started, or start a degree," she said.

Some adult learners return to school to change careers or enhance their career opportunities, Mercurio added. That's just what Mercurio did a few years ago after becoming a married woman with three stepchildren.

"I knew if I wanted to go further in my career, a master's degree was necessary." But going back to school was intimidating at first. Mercurio graduated with her bachelor's degree in 1988, almost 20 years before finishing her master's degree.

She soon fit in with other students on campus, many of whom were also returning learners, and used Franklin's resources, such as a student learning center, to her advantage. "It gave me one more sort of boost in my confidence level," she said of the center, which offers workshops and other opportunities for students.

Like Mercurio, many parents are returning to college with specific goals in mind. "They are becoming pretty savvy consumers because they have to be," said Tarie Blaney, Columbus State director of admissions. "They are asking more about cost and affordability issues."

Blaney recommended that those returning to college or attending for the first time explore scholarship options. Students 25 and older can receive up to $1,000 with the Think Again Scholarship, for example. "It's designed for students who have never gone to college or never completed a degree," Blaney said.

Aside from a variety of scholarship opportunities, many companies also reimburse tuition and expenses. And many students use the classroom to enhance their career on a personal level. "You're learning with people who are in your same peer group," Mercurio said. "You have a great network of knowledge."

Some colleges, such as Columbus State, may even grant credit for life and work experience through a prior learning assessment. The school also offers a childcare center on campus and other amenities now common to the college scene such as tutoring, open labs, developmental courses, and career counseling along with distance learning courses and weekend and evening courses.

These options make college more accessible for parents trying to balance work and family who often find that a lack of time is one of the biggest barriers to education. Juggling time conflicts is not new to parents, Blaney added, so they may do better at school than they think.

The school experience also gives parents a chance to bond with their children as they work together on homework assignments or discuss the importance of higher education from a very real standpoint. "They find coming back as an adult, it's a whole different world for them," Blaney said.

And after a year of taking part-time courses to refresh my skills, I found just what I was looking for: a full-time job.


Amber Stephens is a Columbus-area freelance writer and editor. Author of the book, Kissing in Columbus, she is also the mother of two young children.