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Recent ‘non-traditional’ grads define the changing face of the college classroom - Columbus State University Skip to Main Content

Recent ‘non-traditional’ grads define the changing face of the college classroom

July 2, 2024

Enfinger with Dr. Shawn Cruzen and Dr. Rosa Williams (left); Downing with her husband (right)

The face of college classrooms across the country is changing as more “non-traditional” students return to school to finish a degree—or start a new one. Their reasons range from pursuing personal interests to changing careers, advancing in their current ones, or increasing their earning potential.

A 2023 U.S. News & World Report article defines a “non-traditional college student” as someone 23 or older and perhaps balancing academics with a full-time job, parenthood—or both. Nationally, 24% of non-traditional learners have children or other dependents.

More than a third of Columbus State University’s 2023-24 enrollment fell into the “non-traditional student” category, which aligns with national averages. The largest generational spikes were among students 51 and older, which grew by more than 17% over 2022-23. Enrollment was evenly split between undergraduate and graduate programs.

Dr. Chip Reese, vice president for enrollment management, said the university pays special attention to supporting the needs of this growing group of adult learners.

“We are continuing to build the academic infrastructure needed to support this amazing group of students,” Reese explained. “From technical support to face-to-face support to a greater variety of academic offerings and class start times, our goal is to help these adult learners meet their goals, give them a place to be successful, and ensure they enjoy their college experience at Columbus State.”

As they pursue their degrees, adult students also contribute in the classroom, as experts point out. Non-traditional students frequently share their real-life and professional experiences through coursework, discussions and group projects. They also model for their younger peers “soft skills” like communication, problem-solving, critical thinking and time management.


Enfinger with her husband at their weddingWhen Blaire Enfinger’s husband (picutred with Enfinger when they married) passed away suddenly in 2015, she decided to honor his memory by earning a degree in forensic chemistry. It would be her second from Columbus State; she earned her first, in early childhood education, in 2011. After adding a minor in astrophysics to her forensic chemistry studies, she discovered she loved it so much that she changed her major to astrophysics and planetary geology.

When she was unsure about her academic direction, Enfinger credits her fellow students, her family and a few key professors with offering encouragement. 

“I’m a finisher and wanted to complete this second degree—I didn’t want it to be for nothing,” she shared. “I’ve always loved looking at the sky; I own a telescope and find this arm of science fascinating.” 

Enfinger specifically credits Dr. Shawn Cruzen (pictured with her and Dr. Rosa Williams in the main news image), a professor of physics and astronomy and the executive director of Columbus State’s Coca-Cola Space Science Center, with guiding her through the steps to change her major. He also helped her carry her love of the sky over to her work life. Before graduating in May 2024, she worked at the center, where she offered tours, worked in the planetarium and handled community relations. 

Enfinger and her fatherEnfinger selected Columbus State for multiple reasons, including proximity to her home and wanting to be close to family. While earning her second degree, she lived at home and cared for her mother. When her mother passed away in 2021, she continued living with her father (pictured here with Enfinger) while continuing to work on her degree.

“Columbus State and the professors I studied with gave me a great toolbox of information to carry me through my academic career,” she recalled. “I met lots of people with the same academic loves. I learned so much—CSU took it beyond academics by teaching me how to establish professional relationships outside the academic world.” 

Up next for Enfinger is a planned master’s with a thesis option in natural sciences. Her professional goal? To one day work for NASA, SpaceX or Blue Origin. 


Rhonda Downing’s college journey was nearly 50 years in the making. After graduating from high school in 1975, she became engaged. She spent a year at Troy State University before she married—followed a few years later by a short stint at then-Columbus College (now Columbus State). In 1983, her husband’s job transferred them to Bainbridge, Georgia, and she enrolled for one quarter at Bainbridge College. A high-risk pregnancy ended her time in college, and she turned her attention to raising two wonderful sons. 

Over the years she thought about returning to school to finish her degree, but always talked herself out of it. In the summer of 2021, she read a newspaper article about a woman who decided to return to school later in life. With encouragement from her eldest son, she began her research and applied to college—with Columbus State being one of her options. She found CSU’s enrollment and acceptance process “so easy,” so she returned to Columbus State to finish her degree online. 

“I found the teachers to be very helpful and supportive,” said Downing, who eventually set her sights on a business administration degree. “They worked with me when family issues arose, and they introduced me to a lot of different people throughout the process. Even though I’ve worked all these years, I learned things I didn’t know! I am so glad I decided to go back to school and have been blessed with the way Columbus State made everything about the process so easy.”

Downing with her two grandchildrenBecause she was an online student, crossing the stage and receiving her degree in May 2024 was the first time she’d set foot on the campus in decades. Her husband (pictured with her in the main news image) and two grandchildren (pictured here with Downing) were in the audience cheering loudly, while the rest of her family and many of her friends watched online.

Downing credits her family for carrying her through the last three years. Her daughter-in-law constantly shared how proud she was, while her 12-year-old granddaughter frequently left her encouraging notes. 

Shortly before her graduation, Downing celebrated her 66th birthday and is now poised to receive her first Social Security check. But she’s not stopping anytime soon. With her new college degree in hand, she’s continuing her longtime career as an office manager and licensed investment advisor with an independent Raymond James broker in Bainbridge. 

Story contributed by Kim Drew, APR

Media contact: Michael Tullier, APR, Executive Director of Strategic Communication + Marketing, 706.507.8729,