When Eddica Tuttle started attending Colorado Mesa University, she tried to do college the way she thought everyone else was doing it.
Even though she was a 22-year-old freshman, working nearly full time and juggling a handful of complicated personal and family matters, Tuttle thought she was supposed to take a full class load and graduate in four years.
But Tuttle — and the majority of college students at CMU, in Colorado and across the United States — no longer fit the stereotypical mold of a young undergraduate with the time, money and support to start college at 18 and graduate in four years.
Most students are now considered nontraditional, a label that encompasses many life circumstances and makes getting a college education more challenging.
For Tuttle, the idea that she had to be a "normal" college student didn't last long. Keeping up with her classes, job and family obligations left zero time to take care of herself, and her grades started to slip.
"I was trying to do everything at once and I was failing, and I can't afford to fail," Tuttle said.
So Tuttle made a change. She changed her schedule so she was only taking two classes at a time and changed majors from biology to English literature. She is now 28 years old and a junior in her sixth year at CMU. At the pace she's going, it will take another two years to graduate.
The majority of students at CMU, in Colorado and across the United States no longer fit that college student stereotype and haven't for years. Meanwhile, institutions and state and federal agencies are grappling with how to serve a group of students whose biggest common denominator is that they're all different.
WHO ARE NONTRADITIONAL STUDENTS?
The U.S. Department of Education uses seven characteristics to identify nontraditional students — financial independence, being a caregiver, having children, not having a traditional high school diploma, age, attending part time and working full time. CMU President Tim Foster said there are several more factors that define the university's student body, like being the first person in a family to attend college and being from a low-income family.
CMU doesn't keep track of every nontraditional student, mainly because it's tricky to do so, said spokesman David Ludlam.
Some of the data is dependent on students disclosing information, like whether they work full time or have children. While some information is listed on federal student aid forms, not all students fill them out.
But the information CMU does collect shows that the majority of students are dealing with challenges that could impact their success in college.
In fall 2017, 62 percent of CMU students either received a Pell Grant, which is federal financial aid for low-income students, were first-generation students or both.
Another six percent were minority students but did not receive a grant or weren't first generation. Only 32 percent of CMU students did not receive federal financial aid, weren't first-generation students and were not considered a minority.
Tuttle checks several of those boxes and also meets the federal definition of nontraditional.
Tuttle will be the first person in her family to get a bachelor's degree. Her dad went to community college and her mom went to cosmetology school but now works nights at a grocery store.
She's always wanted to go to college and she remembers watching Steve Irwin, "The Crocodile Hunter," as a 12-year-old and wanting to go to school so she could work with animals.
But as she grew up, it became more challenging for Tuttle to start college right out of high school. There wasn't any money saved up for her education, her family had a history of drug abuse and Tuttle was trying to cope with the aftermath of childhood trauma.
When she was 17, Tuttle's mother broke her leg in a car accident and Tuttle nearly missed taking the SAT because she was staying home to take care of her.
Tuttle found out that despite not studying, she had done well on the test.
"I was walking home from school and I realized that I wanted to do better than this, that I didn't want to struggle and live paycheck to paycheck like my family was," Tuttle said.
Even with no money and a minimal support system, Tuttle had her mind made up.
"I kept telling myself, you're never too old to go to school, especially nowadays," she said.
She tried going to community college in Los Angeles, but was quickly overwhelmed by the massive student body.
At 21, Tuttle moved to Grand Junction with $1,200 to her name, bought a car with $900, gave her mom the remaining $300 and started working at the Western Colorado Conservation Corps.
It was at that job she learned about financial aid, that the government could help her get a college education.
"When you're starting college for the first time with no real support, it's a little overwhelming and you have so many outside needs," Tuttle said. "You have to get a job, you might have started a family, and once you start higher education with all of that baggage it makes it twice as hard to dedicate your time, money and energy to doing it, and that's why it's far better for people like me to take it slow."
Tuttle said she hopes the narrative of a "typical" college student will start to change.
Growing up, Tuttle said, she felt a lot of pressure to take the track of going to school full time immediately after high school, regardless of her circumstances.
"A lot of people assume, 'If I can do it, you can do it,' " Tuttle said. "I think it's important for the world to know that coming from a s---ty background and not having coping skills can make it really difficult."
Nontraditional students have been the majority as far back as 1986, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, when 65 percent of all students had some kind of nontraditional characteristic.
So if this has been the reality for more than 20 years, why are colleges and the government just starting to catch on?
"The cultural narrative is still focused on the 18-year-old going off to college," said Dan Baer, executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education. "The easiest cultural touchpoint is someone who graduated from high school last year, that's the most concentrated pool of potential college students. And that's the most difficult part of thinking about nontraditional college students. The market is every adult."
Though they track the total number of nontraditional students, government agencies have long neglected to include them in other statistics — a point of frustration for Foster.
Students who don't go to school full time, aren't going to school for the first time and who transfer from or to another institution aren't included in measures like graduation rates.
Colorado Mesa's four- to six-year graduation rates have gone up over the past 10 years, with the four-year graduation rate rising from 10 percent for freshmen who started in 2004 to 25 percent for freshmen who started in 2014. The six-year graduation rate saw similar growth, from 25 percent in 2004 to 39 percent in 2012.
That's a nice picture, Foster said, but not one he puts much stock in.
"Four-to-six is the most irrelevant statistic in higher education, but people like it," Foster said. "Grad rates are interesting, but it doesn't tell the story. What tells the story is your credentials compared to the size of your student body. To me, that's a better measure of today's student."
That number has nearly doubled at CMU since 2013, with 977 degrees or certificates awarded in 2013 and 1,903 degrees or certificates awarded in 2017.
Another challenge for schools like CMU with a significant number of nontraditional, first-generation and low-income students is that those students require far more support than their peers, said John Marshall, vice president of student services.
"Students who are coming out of homes with six-figure incomes, they're well-resourced and socially, economically and emotionally prepared for college," Marshall said. "The reality is that anyone could get that kid over the finish line, and the reality is that we do something very different here because our students are very different."
RECOGNITION AND SUPPORT
If they were a somewhat ignored majority in the past, the recognition of nontraditional students in higher education is rising.
At Colorado Mesa, that recognition means a culture shift as well as specific support programs. Before Foster was hired in 2004, CMU felt like a commuter school, Marshall said, not a college campus.
"Some of it is helping students see themselves as belonging here," Marshall said. "If you don't know what a bursar or a registrar is, you feel like a stranger in a foreign land."
The university is more focused on getting students involved on campus, whether that's through sports, marching band, theater or campus activities, Marshall said, and has even started tracking when students are checking in at activities with their student ID and flagging those who aren't involved.
"You can see a student who isn't showing up anywhere and that allows us to be a lot more purposeful about touching base with them and finding things that interest them," Marshall said. "It's really a campus commitment and a cultural commitment to engaging students and supporting them both in and out of the classroom."
Marshall said he has a distinct memory of walking across campus one night in 2011 and noticing that there were hundreds of students, throwing frisbees or sitting in the grass. It felt like turning a corner.
"You could see there was a dynamic that was changing, and since that time it has grown by leaps and bounds as we have really deliberately targeted the student experience, making sure we're reaching those students who traditionally in the last 100 years haven't had a chance to attend college," Marshall said.
There are also programs that support specific students, like mentoring and TRIO Student Support Services.
CMU's mentoring program started when Foster was visiting a nearby coffee shop and noticed the owner, Fran Morales, was trying to connect her student customers who could help each other with math or writing.
He asked her to do the same thing for CMU, and now the university's three mentors — including Morales — work with 90 to 150 students a week to help them with anything from financial aid to academics to finding a sense of community.
TRIO, funded by federal grants, works with students who are low-income, first-generation or have disabilities. At CMU, the TRIO program includes academic support, financial planning, and professional and personal development.
The results of supporting specific students is evident when those students walk across the stage at graduation, said Bob Lang, director of diversity, advocacy and health at CMU.
Reaching out to nontraditional students — adults who never obtained a college degree or certificate — is a key part of the Colorado Department of Higher Education's goal to increase postsecondary attainment to 66 percent by 2025.
"A generation ago, nontraditional students were seen as someone who missed out the first time," Baer said. "But I think we're moving away from that view, that we learn for a few years and work for 40 years. People are going to be working longer and the world is changing so fast it's just not tenable to think you can give someone all the skills they will need to work in the world for 40 or 50 years."
The challenge facing the state and higher education institutions is how to make the case to adults that going back to school is worth it.
"It's especially true of nontraditional students that in a recession, people out of a job use that opportunity to go back to school," Baer said. "One of the things I would like to see is institutions thinking ahead to how do we prepare ourselves for the next recession, the influx of nontraditional students, and how do we create the supports and programs that will help."