James Russell didn't understand how letters form syllables, let alone how words link into whole statements, when he first walked into a Rio Salado College classroom eight months ago.
The 78-year-old couldn't grasp enough written English to fill out a job application.
A heart attack ended Russell's lawn service career last year. But retirement isn't an option for a man without savings.
"I want to do something with my head instead of my back," said Russell, who now reads at a fourth-grade-level thanks to community college classes.
Russell is a dramatic example of one of higher education's greatest challenges: working adults.
Classes begin this week at the Valley's universities and community colleges, where administrators are trying to expand programs for the population of older, busier students.
Despite those efforts, the number of older students at most of the state's public institutions has stagnated. College officials blame budget constraints.
"There is always demand for adult education, and the demand is larger than what we can fill across the state," said Kathy Price, coordinator of Rio Salado's adult basic education program.
At Arizona State University, the number of students over the age of 35 actually shrunk slightly, enrollment data shows. That decline came in spite of the university's overall growth and the creation of several programs to serve working adults.
But some institutions, particularly community colleges and private for-profit universities, are faring better.
Rio Salado has doubled its number of students aged 30 and older since 1998, to more than 6,000 last school year. The college, part of the Maricopa County Community College District, operates several small campuses around the county and teaches about half of its classes online.
Private for-profit universities are designing their courses and schedules solely for such students, often referred to as "nontraditional."
Many of these students tuck their schoolwork around full-time jobs and parenting. They're turning to colleges and universities for everything from the basics of reading and writing to master's degrees in business administration, often in hopes of changing careers.
State education officials argue that much of Arizona's economic future depends on whether tens of thousands of older residents return to school and earn college degrees. The state's higher education institutions are not graduating nearly enough students to meet the work force demands of dozens of industries, like health care and engineering.
The percentage of Arizona residents with high school diplomas and bachelor's degrees is close to the national averages, 84 percent and 25 percent, respectively. However, a large number of those degree holders moved here from other states and are less likely to stay put than longtime Arizona residents.
"There's no question that we have imported talent," Fred DuVal, a member of the Arizona Board of Regents, told the Tribune last year.
Between 2005 and 2006, the number of Arizona residents with a bachelor's degree increased by 41,000, figures from the U.S. Census Bureau show. As much as half of the increase appears to have come from new residents who received their education elsewhere, federal education data indicates.
Adult workers have increasingly chosen private for-profit universities, as the University of Phoenix's 110,000 students have, to earn advanced degrees.
These institutions have long made their class schedules more flexible and, therefore, preferable for working students.
Large public universities have been slower to adapt, primarily enrolling traditional students who attend class during business hours.
"Twenty years ago, they were paying no attention to the needs of the working adult," said Jo Arney, operations director at Western International University in Phoenix. ASU is an exception, Arney said, particularly in the past five years.
Western International takes its programs to students by partnering with companies.
Arney said the university has taught courses at Salt River Project facilities for 12 years, offering the utility company a lower tuition rate in exchange for classroom space. "You can walk right from your cubicle to the classroom," she said.
Education is perhaps most important for those without jobs, like Russell, who lack more than a college degree.
Last Tuesday, at Rio Salado's downtown Phoenix campus, nine students sounded out the various pronunciations for the letter S.
"It takes its voice from the letter that comes just before," their teacher, Georgene Faust, explained.
A majority of the students were foreign nationals, 40 years and older, who already speak proficient English, but are learning to read or write the language. Their textbooks have worn pages covered in decades-worth of notes and doodles.
Russell sat in the front row, focused on Faust's lesson.
After Russell suffered a heart attack, doctors implanted a stent to clear the clogged arteries. They ordered him to stop doing manual labor - the only kind of work Russell knew how to do.
"It was the graveyard, or school," Russell said of his options.
His first day of school, ever, was in December at Rio Salado.
Russell was born in 1930 on a Mississippi cotton plantation. Blacks there lived in poverty, and segregation was the law. His grandparents raised him in a house with 12 other children.
Russell said his mother moved to Louisiana without him, shortly after giving birth.
He has no memory of ever sitting in an elementary classroom. "There was no kinda school," Russell said.
Russell's only informal education came from his grandfather, who taught him to count and to drive.
The grandfather drove a delivery truck, Russell recalled, and allowed his young grandson to sit on his lap and help steer between stops.
Russell said he began driving by himself as soon as his feet could reach the gas and brake pedals, sometime before his 10th birthday. He moved out of his grandparents' crowded house shortly thereafter, hitchhiking from city to city, working odd jobs.
In 1971, Russell said he arrived in Phoenix and worked about 10 years as a driver and handyman for a local construction company.
Then Russell went into business for himself. He mowed lawns and did other landscaping tasks at homes around the city for nearly 30 years.
Russell said he could count the cash his customers paid him; there was no reading required.
"There is a lot of money in yardwork if you treat people right," Russell said. He earned roughly $20,000 a year, plenty to cover his rent and food.
It bothered him to look at words on street signs and not understand them. But it wasn't a big problem, Russell said, until he had to answer written questions on job applications.
Employment remains hard to come by for Russell. Old age has become the largest impediment.
"Now I can fill out applications," he said.