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Delayed Dreams: Many Returning Students Among Class of 2013

Rich Legg | E+ | Getty Images

The bright, optimistic faces of the class of 2013 will include more than a few with lines of experience and a perhaps even a smattering of gray hairs.

Older Americans make up a significant chunk of students who have headed into the classroom in recent years and are now heading out into the job market in the hopes that their degrees will help them land a job in the improving economy.

Nearly 3.9 million of the approximately 18.1 million students enrolled in undergraduate programs in the fall of 2011 were 30 years old or older, according to the most recent data available from the Department of Education.

NBC News asked some of the nation's older and returning students to tell us, in their own words, what it's been like to go back to school and how they expect their lives to change now that they are earning their degrees. Some responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Melissa Collins Rutter, 32, is graduating from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, in December with a bachelor's degree in global studies and minors in soil science, horticulture and applied economics. Her goal is to become a soil scientist.

Tell us a bit about your current family situation.

I have been married to my wonderful husband Chad for 10 years. We both grew up in rural Nebraska and then moved to Minneapolis as young adults. We have taken turns working to put each other through school, and I consider myself fortunate to have such a supportive partner. Chad graduated with his MFA in sculpture from the University of Minnesota in 2010 and now works as an artist and an adjunct professor at several colleges in the area.

What were you doing before you decided to go back to school?

I worked full time in the medical field, first as a float receptionist and later as an office manager for a small family practice clinic.

Why did you decide to go back to school?

My mother died when I was 24, and this had a huge impact on my life. She was raised as a Mennonite with rich traditions that I feared would be lost if I, as the only woman in the family, didn't pass them on. I learned how to garden, save seeds, can pickles and sew as a way to connect to my mother and explore my identity as a woman. Growing my own food was a revelation to me. I learned all about our food system and realized that I wanted to study food, how it is grown and how people have access to it. I had never heard of soil science, but it makes sense that I ended up there because what could be more important to the food system than how we choose to use land?

What was it like to be a student later in life?

There are some great advantages to being an older student. I'm confident and aware enough to take advantage of the opportunities at a large university, such as internships, independent studies, conferences and certification programs. I've formed good connections and even friendships with some of my professors. I am able to recognize how what I am learning will be applicable in the real world and I feel this helps me get the most out of my education. I have more focus than some of my younger counterparts who are still figuring out what they want to do with their lives.

Being more than 10 years older than your peers can be challenging. When other students want to meet to work on a group project in their dorm room at 10 p.m., you definitely feel the age difference. Many students can't relate to my day-to-day experience of living with a long-term partner, having health problems or even cooking every day, and it feels isolating at times. My grades are affected more than I would like by normal life, and sometimes I have to settle for "good enough" with papers or projects because all-nighters just aren't an option.

How do you expect your life to change now that you have your degree?

My dream at this point is to be one of the lucky ones to find a job that will allow us to live comfortably, pay down our student loans and buy a house.

Sharon Anne Nowlin, 56, is graduating with a bachelor's of science in community development from Central Michigan University. Nowlin hopes to go to graduate school to pursue a master's in social work, if she can afford it.

Tell us a bit about your current family situation.

I am a single person with no income and I am living on just what the school gives me after paying for books and school.

What were you doing before you decided to go back to school?

I was a homeless veteran living in a shelter in Chicago and a friend found out that I was there and asked me to come live with her. I was already going to school when I lived in the homeless shelter and have been continuing my education since then.

Why did you decide to go back to school?

I wanted a better future for myself and I knew that the only way that was going to happen was to get an education.

What was it like to be a student later in life?

Attending college is one of the greatest accomplishments that I have done in my lifetime. I have worked hard and diligently to keep my graduation in my eyesight at all times. Going back to school after 30 years of being out of school was a very difficult task at first, but I persevered and pushed myself because I knew that there was an end to something that was important for me to accomplish.

How do you expect your life to change now that you have your degree?

I have the opportunity to get a better job, with better pay and benefits.

Rebecca Ann Hicks, 32, will be receiving an associates degree in applied science for radiological technology from the University of Alaska Anchorage. She is looking for a job as an X-ray technician.

Tell us a bit about your current family situation.

I have a live-in boyfriend of 6-plus years, a 15-year-old daughter and a 16-year-old stepson (boyfriend's son).

What were you doing before you decided to go back to school?

I had been working as a project manager for an environmental waste disposal company. I was laid off and was thinking about going back to school for arctic civil engineering, but I wanted something that (I could) complete a little quicker so I could get back into the work force.

Why did you decide to go back to school?

I wanted a career change, and I wanted to show my children the importance of education, even at this age. And I wanted them to see mom persevere through college so they would know that they could do it, too.

What was it like to be a student later in life?

It was more difficult personally … because I had a different life than when I was younger. I didn't have to learn how to balance just schoolwork, but also my daughter, her after-school activities, her school activities, dinner, laundry, studying, homework and a full work schedule—not to mention the budget had to be balanced, which was the most difficult part.

How do you expect your life to change now that you have your degree?

I thoroughly enjoy the career field I chose, however the job market is extremely slim. Although there were only 12 of us in my program, when we graduated there were not 12 new jobs available. So right now it is difficult for any of us to find a job. While I am searching for (a job), I keep in the back of my head the student loans that I now have, on top of the house mortgage, the car payment … and all of the other bills; all of this with no income for myself. However, I see great opportunities becoming available as well. Being able to transfer anywhere in the world with my degree and being able to obtain employment is fantastic to know. I see this as also being a positive experience for my kids so they are more likely to go to college and push through it all the way to graduate.

_By CNBC's Allison Linn.

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