MECHANICSVILLE, Va. — In Tara Gray’s bedroom in her home, there’s a blue folder kept with her wedding memory box and children’s photo albums.
Inside are keepsakes from her first go-around at college, from acceptance letters to student ID cards to student directories. Tucked in the middle is a July 22, 2005, letter to Virginia Commonwealth University notifying the Richmond school that she would not be returning the next year – too worn out from raising two children alone, going to school, and working a part-time job at Babies “R” Us to pay the bills.
“Through all the moves and all the life changes, I’ve kept it,” Gray, 42, said of the folder. “I just couldn’t bear to throw it away. If I threw it away, it basically means it didn’t happen.”
Now Gray, a stay-at-home mom of three daughters, is returning to fill the void she’s felt since dropping out more than a dozen years ago; a local part of a nationwide trend of more older Americans enrolling in college, some to satisfy an itch from a former life like Gray and others to simply seek employment in a changing economy.
Students aged 25 or older made up about 40 percent of all college students in 2009, according to federal data. That number is projected to increase to 43 percent by 2020, meaning 9.6 million older students will head to campus, an increase of 800,000 people.
"Any time there is an economic downturn, there's a higher rate of enrollment in higher education," said Needham Yancey Gulley, an assistant professor in the higher education student affairs program at Western Carolina University. "Now people are having to get technical skills and it's not just 18-to-24-year-olds who want those jobs. Adults want those jobs too."
Since the Great Recession, adult higher education enrollment has been on the rise, including in Virginia, which has seen a 6 percent increase, according to state data.
The primary motivation for adults returning to college is career advancement, according to a study from the Lumina Foundation, a foundation aimed at expanding access to education beyond high school. Experts say a wave of job losses during the downturn is in part helping to fuel the rise in adult enrollment.
The National Center for Education Statistics projects that by 2026, the U.S. will see an 8 percent growth in the number of college students older than 25.
Gray, who will turn 43 in May, said she didn’t take her education very seriously while she was at Varina High School in Henrico and Atlee High School in Hanover.
She had a daughter, Hailey, at 21 years old. Divorce left her as a single mother.
“I found myself at 25, a mom and already divorced and found myself asking, ‘OK, now what?’” she said.
She enrolled at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College in the summer of 2000 to study community and social services, but life got in the way.
“Once I got going I was really excited to be there,” she said. “I was looking forward to pushing through and knocking the four years of college out.
“That didn’t happen.”
Lacking a babysitter, she’d sometimes have to take Hailey with her to class, occupying the toddler with various activities like learning the alphabet while a tired Gray tried to focus on coursework.
Gray, who had a second daughter, finished at what is now Reynolds Community College before transferring to VCU to study criminal justice. That lasted one semester.
“I was like a fish out of water, just flopping around,” Gray recalls. “I was a college student with a 7-year-old, a 4-month-old and I was just spread so thin."
Her father, Jerry Duff, a retired small business owner, said it was difficult to watch his daughter struggle in those years, but said “it’s never too late to finish.”
“This is just an interrupted pursuit,” he said.
More Americans and Virginians are taking that route to get their degrees – not finishing in the standard four years or returning to college after extended breaks.
The number of undergraduate students aged 25 years or older in Virginia has increased 5.8 percent since 2008-09, according to state data.
“No longer can we expect a homogeneous student population of a common age group and life situation or background,” said Martha Cleveland-Innes, the chair of the Centre for Distance Education at Athabasca University in Canada.
If Gray, who is halfway to her degree, finishes in two years, her start-to-finish graduation will have spanned 20 years.
The mother of three is turning her walk-in closet into an office, ready for August when she’ll return to VCU.
She’s been married for 10 years to her husband, Paul Gray, who said the family is ready to support her.
“It’ll be great for her to finish what she started,” Paul Gray said. “She didn’t have much support then. Now she has more support and we’ll do whatever we can to make it work.”
Tara Gray said she’s “petrified” about returning, but hopes to show her daughters – and herself – that it’s not too late.
“This is more than a degree,” she said. “There’s been a huge gap in time and a lot of life between then and now, but you can still do what you want to do and you just don’t give up.”
She laughs now as she looks through the folder, a memory of a time when she was overwhelmed to the point where she put her college education on pause in order to “survive in mom mode.”
Now she's ready to thrive.