Earning a degree takes a herculean amount of effort—even for Olympic athletes

Olympic athletes are no strangers to hard work or perseverance, but for many, the academic finish line remains elusive.

Like other adult students, Olympic athletes struggle to find the money and time to succeed at the balancing act of career, training, and education, Jon Marcus writes for the Hechinger Report.

Jennifer Page, for example, is a 2020 Olympic hopeful who took six years to compete a bachelor's degree in health science at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs (UCCS), Marcus writes.

Mirai Nagusa, an Olympic figure skater and 24-year-old junior at UCCS, faces a similar path to her degree, Marcus writes. Her schedule of classes, training, exams, and competitions can be "beyond difficult to balance," she admits.

While Olympic athletes comprise only a handful of nontraditional students, their challenges illustrate the common barriers that keep older students from graduating, Marcus writes.

About 38% of undergraduate students are older than 25, more than 25% are raising children, and about 58% work while enrolled in college, according to a report by the Lumina Foundation. And as the high school graduate pool shrinks, many colleges are beginning to view adult learners as an opportunity, Marcus writes.

But while demographics have been shifting towards older adults who work and parent, colleges have not yet adjusted to the needs of this new "typical" student, Jillian Berman recently wrote in an article in for MarketWatch.

For adult learners and Olympians alike, the weight of external responsibilities can make college especially difficult to navigate, notes Marcus.

For many Olympians, a grueling training schedule only leaves early mornings and evenings open to take courses. Adult students who work find themselves in a similar situation. But many colleges still only offer weekday and afternoon classes that clash with a working schedule.

In addition, student-parents often struggle with finding affordable on-campus child care, Berman writes. The number of on-campus child care centers dropped by 14% between 2004 and 2012, reports the Institute of Women's Policy Research.

Related: Eliminate persistence barriers with guaranteed course schedules

For adult students, credit transfers pose another barrier to entry and persistence, Marcus writes. Many four-year institutions do a poor job of helping students to transfer their credits: sometimes past coursework does not count toward major degrees, sometimes only a few credits are permitted, and often information about the credit transfer process is confusing or non-existent, writes Scott Booth, an  enrollment expert at EAB. Often, older students have to retake courses they've already passed which can set them back by more than a semester, Marcus writes.

Even the financial aid process can put older students at a disadvantage. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) fails to account for expenses like the lost income that come from leaving a job or scaling back hours, reports Berman. And many Olympians and adult learners are ineligible for financial aid because they don't enroll as full-time students, Marcus notes.

Also see: Two strategies to ease the path to re-enrollment for adult degree completers

Fortunately, some organizations are helping Olympic athletes cross the higher ed finish line. Colorado recently made Olympic athletes and hopefuls eligible for lower in-state tuition, Marcus reports. The U.S. Olympic Committee also offers athletes scholarships and free online courses at DeVry University, he adds (Marcus, Hechinger Report, 1/8)


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