UC Berkeley’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiatives cannot ignore age

Illustration of an old and a young person on scales
Kelsey Choe/File

U.S. News & World Report recently released its list of colleges with the highest percentage of undergraduate students more than the age of 25. Absent from this list were any of the University of California campuses. A recent study estimates that nearly 20 percent of undergraduates in the United States are 25 or older. In 2020, UC Berkeley admitted more than 15,000 new undergraduates, with only four percent being 25 or older. UC Berkeley defines this demographic as “re-entry students.”

Students in this age group have been growing since the 1980s. However, research shows that they are one of the most overlooked demographics in education research. While UC Berkeley has been striving for more equity and inclusion, re-entry students here, too, have been heavily underrepresented, despite making up one-fifth of undergraduates nationwide.

Re-entry students often juggle their coursework with responsibilities such as caring for their families, providing a steady income and finding the time to participate in opportunities that will set them up for success after graduation.

Like younger students, re-entry students will need a college degree to participate in the economy by the end of the decade. Therefore, ensuring that re-entry students are successful by providing them with space and support on campus is crucial.

Berkeley is only one of three UC campuses that officially provides services and support to re-entry students alongside UC Davis and UC Santa Cruz. The Re-Entry Student Program at UC Berkeley offers services and study spaces for students 25 years and older. Services include a one-unit transition course for new students, weekday peer advising and workshops that range from teaching stress-reduction techniques to informing students about research opportunities on campus. By participating in the program, re-entry students are more successful at utilizing resources and securing opportunities.

As a re-entry student majoring in sociology, I spent the last year writing my senior thesis on the non-traditional (first-generation, transfer and disadvantaged socioeconomic background) student experience at UC Berkeley.

I collected more than 400 survey responses from traditional and non-traditional students, and conducted 20 in-depth interviews. Of those survey responses, 78 were from re-entry students, and five of the interviewees were re-entry students.

While I found previous research on the non-traditional student demographic, none included the re-entry student demographic at top-ranked universities. Though many non-traditional students in my study expressed similar challenges, including lack of money, time and the knowledge needed to navigate a research university, the experiences of re-entry students were uniquely challenging.

Consider Luis, a 31-year-old transfer student from Napa County that I interviewed for my thesis. Every day, Luis woke up early in the morning to take care of his son, drove more than an hour one-way to campus and returned home in the evening.

In addition to his student and family responsibilities, Luis worked 20 to 30 hours a week. Luis stated, “It’s the reason that I feel that I never was able to take advantage of a lot of the resources available on campus. I was always hurrying to get home to either do schoolwork, go to my job or attend to my family.”

Even as classes went virtual during the pandemic, Luis did not gain any extra time during his day. He now had to take care of his son, who had also switched to virtual learning, and he continued to work nearly full-time as an essential worker.

The story Luis told was not uncommon among the other re-entry students. They must constantly balance between family, work and school. The research showed that re-entry students were less likely to utilize campus resources, build social networks or secure opportunities such as internships. In addition, Luis stated that he felt unprepared for the workforce after graduation. The time commitment due to his other life responsibilities prevented Luis from securing an internship or building a social network.

However, re-entry students who participated in the Re-Entry Student Program and other programs on campus, such as the NavCal fellowship, used campus resources more often. They were more likely to attend office hours with faculty and staff and secured more internship opportunities. For instance, Mary, a 40-year old history major, expressed how vital support programs are to her success: “They provided a lot of support, resources and motivation.”

Each re-entry student who had successfully navigated campus resources and secured positive educational experiences cited the programs as the source for their success. When these students entered Berkeley, they were unaware of how to navigate college. These programs filled that void with transition courses, peer advising and informative workshops.

Indeed, other researchers have shown that people often suffer from a lack of knowledge of available resources, not because of an actual shortage of resources. The question then becomes: What can UC Berkeley do to help its re-entry students navigate the available resources on campus?

To help re-entry students, Berkeley should continue to invest in programs such as the Re-Entry Student Program. Each semester, the Re-Entry Student Program offers its one-unit transition course for new students. Berkeley should incentivize re-entry students or even require them to take this course. By doing so, re-entry students will build a community on campus and find out what resources and opportunities are available to them. When considering workforce needs, the success of re-entry students is essential to UC Berkeley and the country’s future.

Robert Fales is a re-entry student and a sociology major.