The demographics of incoming college freshmen have shifted significantly over the past few decades. The two most notable changes are an increase in the number of non-white (and particularly Latino) students and the growing number of so-called “nontraditional” students. Although the presence of minority students on campus has received a great deal of scrutiny, far less attention has been paid to the role that nontraditional students play in shaping university policy.
This failure to recognize the importance of nontraditional students seems particularly odd considering just how many of them there are. In 2015, the Department of Education released a report showing that 74 percent of all undergraduates have at least one trait that makes them nontraditional. That is, three-quarters of all undergraduate degree seekers are single caregivers, have one or more dependents, work either part or full-time, postponed their postsecondary education, or do not have traditional high school diplomas. The prevalence of nontraditional students has prompted some to call for abandoning the term itself.
The rise of for-profit online universities over the last decade can be explained, at least in part, by the failure of accredited schools to consider the needs of these students. Nonprofit institutions have since realized that they must be more flexible in their course offerings in order to recapture the tuition revenues that the for-profit market had capitalized on.
But what about the larger impact of the nontraditional student? Can institutions of higher education learn how to better themselves by restructuring in order to benefit working students? Here are a few important insights universities can gain from examining the needs of nontraditional students.
Learning Needs to Be More Vocational
Many nontraditional students return to school in order to better their careers or learn how to be more competitive in the global knowledge economy. This makes them a vital resource for research universities that are already seeking to implement partnerships with the corporate sector that go beyond traditional internships or special projects. Indeed, nontraditional students can play an active role in nurturing industry partnerships, drawing on their relevant work experience to help make smooth transitions in new collaborative efforts. Institutions of higher education that develop strong partnerships with industry will not only ease their financial burden; they will also offer students, both traditional and non, immediate access into the post-graduate workforce.
Curricula and Programs Must Be Student-Centered
Nontraditional students bring a lot to the table. They have higher levels of internal motivation, emotional coping, and successful goal attainment. However, because they also have more events in their lives competing for their attention, they also tend to have poor retention rates. Universities that address the specific needs of nontraditional students will inevitably develop curricula and programs with a student-centered focus, seeking to capitalize on students’ motivation while at the same time removing obstacles to completion, such as having classes that only meet outside traditional work hours or having online class offerings.
Social Isolation Is an Impediment to Student Success
A recent article published in Inquiries points out that “when students experience a climate of exclusion or rejection, especially from their immediate learning environment,. . . they tend to feel intellectually devalued and may seek out new environments that are more accepting and supportive.” That explains why female students don’t always do as well as their male peers in STEM oriented degree majors, and it can also explain why nontraditional students have a higher university drop out rate. In fact, a common complaint among nontraditional students is they don’t feel included in campus life. Developing strong communities on campus, ones that appeal not only to minority students but also to working and older students, is a good way to boost retention across the board.
Environmental Support Can Make a Crucial Difference
Universities that continue to think of incoming college freshmen as recent high school graduates are going to offer environmental support structures that meet the needs of young people. However, nontraditional students do better when institutions address their unique needs for environmental support structures, including counseling geared toward older students, child daycare facilities, and financial aid officers who understand the struggles of working students to afford tuition.
There Is Little Time to Spare
Twentieth-century institutions of higher education got into the habit of seeing themselves as a bridge between the parental home and the adult world. In the traditional university environment, there is only a token interplay between campus and community. Nontraditional students, on the other hand, are coming from the real world. They are parents, members of the workforce, and veterans. They don’t have time to waste. Serving this demographic effectively means finding technology that is both user-friendly and capable of aligning complex data efficiently, so that students have access to their records and can research financial options.
In many ways, structuring a institution of higher education to meet the needs of nontraditional students means creating a school that functions better in the twenty-first century economy. To put it another way — if university administrators want to realign their strategic goals to be competitive in the future, they would do well to pay attention to their nontraditional students.