Editor's note: The line graph labeled "Later in life" was updated at 11:10 a.m. Nov. 10 to accurately reflect the population of older students at UHCL.

Student populations at southeast Houston colleges are getting progressively younger.

Enrollment at San Jacinto College steadily increased from fall 2016 to fall 2019, and the portion of under-age-18 students out of the total student body grew about 9% from fall 2016 to fall 2020. The under-18 portion of Alvin Community College’s student body grew about 10% from fall 2016 to fall 2020, despite total enrollment decreasing about 8.5% over that same period.

ACC’s connections with various local college- and career-focused secondary schools have contributed to the student population getting younger, President Robert Exley said. He and Laurel Williamson, SJC’s deputy chancellor and college president, said there is an increased desire for high school students to get a head start on taking college courses.

“I think that ... students in high schools want to get onto that college path more quickly,” Williamson said.

Both Pearland ISD and Alvin ISD high schoolers can take ACC courses, and dozens of seniors in the last several years have earned an associate degree simultaneously with their high school diploma, per the districts.

At the same time, some colleges are seeing more older learners seeking degrees, driven to shift careers during the coronavirus pandemic.

Jeff Schmitz said he felt a sense of relief the first time he saw Jabir Al-Hilali’s face on the screen in one of his University of Houston-Clear Lake classes, held over Zoom during the pandemic. The two 68-year-olds said they do not often encounter other students their age, so seeing each other the following semester at an in-person class was an even bigger relief, Schmitz recalled.

Per preliminary estimates, Schmitz and Al-Hilali are among about 240 students over age 50 on UHCL’s two campuses this fall, up from about 200 the year prior; students in this age range made up less than 5% of the campus population. Older students represent one sector of nontraditional student populations at area college campuses.

The age of students is not the only change affecting classrooms and campuses, UHCL, SJC and ACC leaders said. COVID-19 has shifted the academic and emotional needs of students, and college officials said they are responding by allocating millions in federal funds directly to students.

Younger learners

The definition of what makes a student nontraditional can vary and does not always include under-18 learners, but leaders at area colleges and ISDs said students are being encouraged from younger ages to challenge themselves with undergraduate coursework.

At PISD, counselors begin working with students in junior high to prepare for high school and beyond. Each high school campus has a dual-credit academic adviser through ACC, and students have access to them daily on campus for additional guidance, PISD Coordinator of Guidance Services Chenda Moore said via email.

Once a student enters the dual-credit program, the adviser works with students on the application process and selecting appropriately sequenced courses. The dual-credit academic advisers are also available to eighth-graders during the course selection time as they begin to map out their four-year high school plan.

More than 1,000 students across four AISD campuses were enrolled in at least one dual-credit course during the last four academic years, per district data. Sixty-one students in the class of 2021 graduated with associate degrees.

Comparatively, nearly 20% of SJC’s student population in fall 2020 was under 18, and 32% of ACC’s students were under 18 in fall 2020.

“[ACC] really has a significantly large number of students who are in that younger age group,” Exley said.

As colleges adapt to shifting demographics, they also have had to adapt to the changing needs of students during the pandemic.

Requests for services have shifted at UHCL as students lost their jobs or homes, UHCL Associate Dean of Students Iliana Melendez said, adding there has been a significant increase in patronage of the on-campus food pantry. The college has expanded its available scholarships in response and catered Discover UHCL open house events around student needs by holding them mainly on weekends, she said.

“As we’re transitioning back to seeing our students on our [campuses], I think we’re just trying to make note of what their needs are right now and shift how we support them in just a different world,” Melendez said.

Nontraditional paths

The pandemic has spurred a re-evaluation for many professionals with some deciding to switch or shift their careers, Melendez said. This is the case for Schmitz and Al-Hilali, both of whom are working toward a master’s degree in exercise and health sciences decades after achieving other graduate degrees.

Both said they look forward to taking more advantage of on-campus programming at UHCL’s main campus on Bay Area Boulevard from the biomechanics labs and the various exercise facilities to clubs, theater and career-focused services.

The networking events UHCL hosts, however, are geared toward traditional students looking to find jobs—not community members such as Al-Hilali, who are hoping to build and promote their businesses or learn about a peer’s previous career experience, he said.

"It needs to be our kind of networking,” said Al-Hilali, who owns The Exercise Coach in Pearland.

Melendez defined nontraditional students at UHCL as those working full time; students above the age of 26; veterans, regardless of age; and, depending their needs, students with physical disabilities.

Many younger UHCL students who have families or work full time still fall within the nontraditional lens, and many nontraditional students are also transfer students, she said.

The average age for full-time undergraduate students in the United States is 21.8 years old, according to national research database Education Data Initiative, and it rises to 27.2 years old for part-time undergraduate students. UHCL’s and ACC’s full-time students have been between 23 and 25 years old in the last several academic years—higher than the national average. San Jacinto’s overall average student age has remained at 23 since 2017.

Meanwhile, UHCL’s part-time students are older than the national average this fall at 29, per preliminary data. The number of under-18 students has made up less than 0.15% of total students since 2014, which was the year UHCL first enrolled freshman and sophomore students in addition to juniors, seniors and graduate students.

COVID-19 challenges, changes

Funding from the federal Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds was established through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, signed into law in March 2020. This funding can be used for tuition; food; child care; housing; or health care, including mental health care, per the U.S. Department of Education.

ACC, UHCL and SJC have distributed, respectively, $6.5 million, $10.4 million and $39 million directly to students to date; each college also has several million dollars of the funds remaining to spend, either directly on students or for institutional support.

Combating the sense of hopelessness that can surround people during a crisis such as COVID-19 has been difficult for staff and students alike, Exley said, and makes planning complicated. Overall, the pandemic highlighted both the importance of intuitive student engagement and fostering togetherness because social isolation is a significant threat to mental health, he said.

The needs of student populations can be driven by their routines, which look different for a full-time student or a student with a family. This is especially seen at UHCL’s Pearland campus, Melendez said, where a majority of students engage in programming and services on Tuesday evenings and on Thursdays.

"It tends to be a little more transactional in terms of, ... 'I'm here and I need these services,’” she said regarding student engagement.

While ACC data shows enrollment for undergraduates is increasing, fewer students are learning on campus, instead opting for online classes, Exley said. Still, the college aims to ramp up the number of GED preparation workshops available and continue providing in other ways for students who may learn or work at unconventional hours.

“We’re a community college for one reason: because we really want to serve the community,” he said.