Non-Traditional Student Success in San Francisco

Non-Traditional Student Success in San Francisco

By Dr. Lillian E. Marrujo-Duck, Dean of Instruction at City College of San Francisco

I come from a family that is blended in several ways. My mother was a single, 16-year-old high school dropout when I was born. A few months later she married my Dad, a Vietnam veteran who raised me as his own. He used the GI Bill to become the only one of his siblings to graduate from college and then the first Spanish-speaking Latino to join the City of Orange Police Department in California. I watched my mother struggle to face life’s challenges with limited resources and witnessed my dad forging a path as a minority role model. In the process, I realized how important it is for our society to ensure more equitable access to opportunity, especially opportunity to education.

My path through college was non-traditional. Instead of going straight to college after high school, I worked full-time and took care of my mother. But I wanted to go to college. Over time, I attended three community colleges and two universities, often taking 4-night classes a semester. I also dropped out completely twice, once to pay bills and once when my son was born, before I received enough units to earn a Bachelor’s degree. It was challenging to balance work, family, and my studies. But it was worth it. I became the first of my siblings, and the first woman in my family to earn a BA. Later, when I was expecting my third child, I finished my Master’s degree. And eventually, at age 51, earned my Ed.D. in Educational Leadership from San Francisco State University.

Through my educational journey, I realized that I was not alone in finding it difficult to navigate the higher education system as an adult student. That’s why I decided to teach at the community college and to focus my work on helping other non-traditional students navigate their educational path to achieve their goals.

My work is very much needed now that non-traditional students are becoming the norm, especially at community colleges. Currently, 27% of all undergraduates are age 25 and older. We cannot ignore the needs of this population.

While I spent years teaching at City College of San Francisco (CCSF), I made the transition to administration because I wanted to make sure that working adults were a priority at CCSF. San Francisco is one of the most expensive and diverse areas in the country. Although the city has the lowest unemployment rate nationwide, many migrant and immigrant residents who don’t have college degrees struggle to survive in lower-wage occupations. Recognizing this phenomenon, CCSF has worked to ensure that any working adult wanting to increase their education and skills can have access to higher education.

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San Francisco is one of the most expensive and diverse areas in the country. Although the city has the lowest unemployment rate nationwide, many migrant and immigrant residents who don’t have college degrees struggle to survive in lower-wage occupations.

That’s how in 2017, San Francisco became the first city in the United States to offer free community college to all residents. The Free City program allows any hardworking student, regardless of age, to attend community college without paying tuition. In addition, Free City works with other campus programs to ensure students successfully complete their course of study.

At the same time, we developed the Working Adults Degree Program (WADP) to provide flexible scheduling for students who must balance many life demands. Our core curriculum brings entire degree pathways, including transfer level general education classes, to multiple centers during the evenings, weekends, and online.    

But we realize that tuition relief and flexible scheduling can only do so much to ensure that students will finish their education. Our students still face the daunting challenge of paying for food, rent, transportation, textbooks, supplies, and—in many cases—childcare. We know that that many of our adults students dropped out of college or gave up the idea earning a degree when they were younger, finding these expenses insurmountable.

With that in mind, we expanded our student services into the evening hours. We encourage students to see counselors who are attentive to the needs of adult students to help them find resources on campus and address these challenges; they receive both academic and career guidance. We want to ensure that our adult students finish their course of study.

Most of our WADP students are older, with the largest group of students in their 40s, and  have worked full time in a variety of positions. Time has also provided WADP students with insight: Their degree is not just for them. Going to college elevates them into family and community role models among their peers and for the  younger generation. It connects multiple generations to the pursuit of higher education, keeping our colleges within our communities, as respected, valued, and accessible institutions.

Throughout the country, we need more programs that reduce financial barriers and provide support services so that the most underserved students can successfully start and complete a college education. We can’t afford to deny access to anyone wanting to acquire the education and skills they need to thrive.

That’s why I support the College Promise Campaign, the bipartisan movement for free community college for all hardworking students including non-traditional students, who go to college later, as I did.

College Promise programs and working adult programs work to ensure that non-traditional students not only enroll in college—but earn their degrees. The successes of our working adult students contribute to the vitality of our communities and our nation.

Share my story to support San Francisco’s Working Adults Degree Program. And find out how to start  a College Promise program in your community at

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