Daniel Kiraly lived in his van, parked outside of the temporary job where he worked the second shift.
That winter, five years ago, it seemed as though his electrical engineering degree -- and his industry -- had ultimately betrayed him.
Now, at 56, Kiraly -- a 1986 University of Colorado graduate who worked as an engineer at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, StorageTek and US West before being laid off and becoming homeless -- is starting anew.
He's enrolled at CU and earning a second bachelor's degree, this time in "International Spanish for the Professions" with the intention of applying to CU-Denver for a master's in international business. He calls himself a "re-freshman."
Colleges and universities have served as a refuge for many adults during the economy's colossal collapse. Community colleges are busting at their seams as adults return to school to train for new jobs. At CU, continuing education programs that accommodate career-changers are flourishing.
Education officials say the return to college is a common response to recessions.
Beginning in 2008, when the economy slumped, the number of degree-seeking adults began ticking upward at CU. In fall 2009, there were 1,947 students on the flagship campus who fit into the 25-to-30 age bracket, a 14 percent increase over two years that outpaced overall enrollment growth. This past school year, CU enrolled another 676 students who are 31 or older.
A promise inspires Kiraly to earn degree
Now Kiraly lives on the campus in a one-bedroom family housing unit, protests tuition hikes and sits in the front row of his classes.
But there have been hurdles since he started working toward his degree in 2008. Students pursuing a second undergraduate degree aren't eligible for Pell grants, and he's read that employers are growing reluctant to hire people in their 50s.
"I'm not ready to give up and bounce from temp job to temp job," Kiraly said.
After Kiraly started school, he made a phone call to his mother in southern California and told her: "I'm going to make you proud." While driving the Buff Bus last fall, a campus shuttle -- and one of his part-time gigs while in school -- he received a call from his cousin, who told him that his mother had passed away.
At times, it's felt like he's doing the "impossible."
He's packed his schedule with classes, and this is the first summer he's taken a break from school to work full-time. He plans to graduate next May.
Kiraly hasn't pinpointed the career that he wants to pursue, but an international job is appealing. He has also taken Arabic and Portuguese classes.
He said he's hoping to find a second job this summer so he can afford to study abroad in Salamanca, Spain, next school year and immerse himself in the Spanish language. He's already put down the deposit.
Community colleges crunched
Returning students are arriving in different waves to the nation's colleges, according to Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.
Mid-level professionals who had been postponing advanced degrees because they were happily employed are now returning for graduate school. Community colleges beckon those who are looking for shorter-term programs for basic skill upgrades, he said. And some new graduates are deciding to hold off on the job search.
"They figure that moving in with mom and dad may not be the happiest place, and they're staying around for grad school," Nassirian said.
The nationwide boom in college enrollment coincided with the onset of the recession in 2007, Nassirian said.
"The single greatest cost of attending college is not the tuition, but the opportunity costs of being out of the labor market and forgoing a salary," Nassirian said. "When there is a significant unemployment rate, you can fully understand why so many, who aren't earning a salary, want to further their education."
Enrollment of full-time students at Colorado's community colleges has shot up 20 percent, said Rhonda Bentz, a spokeswoman for the system. There are 86,962 students enrolled in the system's 13 community colleges, including about 19,300 at Front Range, which has a campus in Longmont.
To accommodate the swelling enrollment, colleges are converting offices into classrooms, teaching in temporary trailers and partnering with school districts to share space. Colleges are also extending their hours, Bentz said.
"They're finding a lot of creative ways," she said.
Many returning students are trying to polish their skills for a competitive workforce or prepare for job changes because of layoffs, Bentz said. The campuses are also seeing an increase in younger students who want to knock out their general education requirements where tuition is more affordable before transferring to universities.
Returning with focus
The continuing education programs that have grown over the past year are ones that appeal to career-changing adults, according to Armando Pares, assistant dean at the Division of Continuing Education and Professional Studies at CU.
Participation in a CU program that allows non-admitted students to take classes for credit, when space is available, has grown 4.5 percent over the past year, with nearly 1,500 enrollments this year. The program is popular for people looking to change careers.
The Center for Advanced Engineering and Technology Education, the distance-learning arm of CU's engineering school, is also experiencing substantial growth. Students take the courses online, via CD-ROM or in the classroom.
Tamas Christman, 28, returned to school after eight years and is working toward his computer science degree.
The CU engineering student began working on his degree at Front Range Community College. In between his education, he's taught scuba diving in the Florida Keys and worked as a medical assistant.
"I love science and math," Christman said. "I don't want to feel like I'm being held down because I lack a degree."
Cristman said he's returned to college with a sharper focus. He wants to go into consulting upon graduation.
He's enrolled this summer in a computer animation course and is learning a 3-dimensional animation suite. For his final project, he'll feature an animated version of Merlin, his border collie.
Cristman said on top of attending school full-time, he's working about 30 hours a week. He plans to graduate in 2012.
"It's been a good adventure," he said.
Contact Camera Staff Writer Brittany Anas at 303-473-1132 or email@example.com.