College Admissions Through the Back Door

Editor’s note: This essay, by Pope Center staff member Carolyn Zahnow, is the latest installment of a Clarion Call special series, “If I Knew Then What I Know Now,” which offers different perspectives of the college experience.

If I had known in high school that I could have gone to college part-time, I bet my life would be dramatically different now. I was not accepted by N.C State University due to not-so-stellar SAT scores. It was not until many years later that I learned about N.C. State’s Lifelong Education program, which allows you to attend without having to worry about SAT scores.

Rejection by my favorite hometown college, State, crushed me, and I was turned down by my second choice as well. I had not contemplated what I would do if I did not attend college. I took a job at an exterminating company helping out the bookkeeper. This job did not last long. I then fell in love and got married at the age of 19. My husband joined the Navy and we went off to live in San Diego—an East coast girl’s dream location.

San Diego was beautiful, with beaches only minutes away from our apartment, but there weren’t many jobs in Point Loma where we lived. After a few months of lackluster employment, I learned that a resident of California could take classes at a community college tuition-free for two years. I promptly signed up for classes, and in 1980 I earned an associate’s degree in marketing management from San Diego City College.

Armed with my two-year degree, I quickly found out that the world was not my oyster. I had longed for a career as a store buyer after graduation but quickly discovered that working your way up was the preferred method of landing a buyer’s position in a large retail chain. I was able to secure retail management jobs but not the glorious position I had envisioned.

We moved back to North Carolina in 1980 and I was able to get management jobs in retail stores or even administrative assistant positions, but these were neither lucrative nor mentally fulfilling. I also wanted to support my son, as I became a divorced mom when he was two years old.

While working at a state government job in Raleigh, I discovered that the state would pay for one class per semester. Since my office was a mere three blocks away from N.C. State, I thought about re-applying, although I was nervous about being rejected again.

I was pleasantly surprised. Since I had a degree that would transfer, and I was at least 24 years old, no one even asked for my SAT scores. I was registered as a Lifelong Education Student and started going to a university at the age of 36.

I loved it! The classes were stimulating; I was able to tell my son about the weather from my meteorology classes, about the planets from my astronomy classes, and about how bad I was at golf (one of my PE classes that I was required to take).

The Lifelong Education program has a few stipulations, but none that interfered with my attending. Here are some of the current requirements:

  • If you have not been to college but have a high school diploma and have taken all the classes required by the minimum admissions standards, then you can register as a Lifelong Education student and take 15 credit hours per year (about half the normal load). Note–minimum admissions requirements include a standard high school college prep curriculum: 4 units of English, 3 units of math, 2 units of social science, and 3 units of science.
  • Once you are enrolled in college, you are expected to receive at least a C- in all your classes. You must also take at least one college-level English composition and one math course.
  • Students who graduated from high school prior to 1990 are exempt from the minimum admissions requirements.
  • When you have successfully completed 15 credit hours, you can be considered for regular admission into the system.

Once I completed two semesters and one summer class, I decided that I did not want to spend the rest of my life in college. I quit my job and registered as a full-time student. I had absolutely no problem being admitted at this point, since I was already in the system. I declared my major—communications—and graduated with a B.A. degree in May of 1997.

Ultimately, I did get the coveted four-year degree, in my own time and fashion. If I had known more about the options, however, I probably would have gone to State on a part-time basis after high school. Thinking back, I could have continued to live at home while I attended State and worked a part time job. But instead I went through several random jobs with none being career-path positions.

I knew I was destined for a brighter future, and I eventually got one. I just took a longer, less direct path than I expected.

So, those of you in high school (or recent graduates), keep in mind that just because you may not have earned the best grades or achieved great SAT or ACT scores, don’t give up! There are other choices. One is to start off slowly by becoming a Lifelong Education student at a UNC school (there are 16 campuses!).

Another idea is attending classes at a community college. It’s less costly, which will make your parents happy, and you can learn valuable skills there. Later, you may wish to transfer your community college credits over to a four-year college.

Still another option is to take a year off, work, and forget about school for twelve months. When you are ready, you will start college with a fresh view on life.

Just don’t be discouraged, as I was when I was 18. You have other choices and you have plenty of time to explore them.