When Non-traditional Becomes Mainstream

Non-traditional students are quickly becoming the largest segment of the student population. How can higher education adapt to meet their needs?

6 minutes
By: Tavleen Tarrant
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When Charles Keene was in the third grade, his father lost his job, forcing his family to spend the decade living off food stamps. According to Keene, attending university wasn’t something he really considered. 

“I was working midnights at Walmart and would go to [high] school during the day, and my advisors didn’t listen to what I was saying,” said Keene. 

Feeling unsupported, Keene landed a job in sales. His company told him to return to school, so he went to the Fontbonne College for Working Adults and graduated with his bachelor’s degree at 29. He then went back to school to get his master’s and teaching degrees to help other non-traditional students like him. 

Now, Keene is the associate dean for the undergraduate program at the Tippie College of Business at the University of Iowa. Keene is just one of many adults who were or are currently considered non-traditional students in higher education. 

According to a 2015 study done by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES),  non-traditional students differ from a typical 18-year-old matriculating into university: financially independent, have a dependant and are a caregiver, delayed matriculation into college, do not hold a traditional high school diploma, are employed full-time and attend school part-time. In addition, non-traditional students are sometimes denoted as adult learners. 

NCES found that 74% of undergraduates in the 2011-2012 cohort were considered non-traditional students, making them the majority of college students in the United States, and the number has only continued to climb. Are universities keeping up with this demand for non-traditional students? And how is the higher education landscape changing as non-traditional students increasingly become the norm? 

Alison Bell is the regional vice president for Western Governors University (WGU), an online school that markets toward the non-traditional student market. According to Bell, WGU is an online university created 25 years ago by governors in the western states to meet the needs of adult learners. WGU uses a time-flexible, fully online model catered toward students who cannot make it to campus due to other obligations and who are then able to work through their degrees at a time and pace that is most suited to their needs. 

“The average age of our students is 37, and more than 80% work full-time, so everything is related to non-traditional students,” said Bell. 

Brandon Busteed, the global head of learn work innovation at Kaplan, said it is a disservice to think of non-traditional students as a minority on campuses today. 

“The preconceived notions most of us have of college students are the young undergrad partying and that’s not necessarily the case anymore,” said Busteed. 

April Query is the assistant vice president of college access and community outreach for the College Foundation of North Carolina (CFNC). CFNC is a nonprofit chapter of North Carolina State Education and provides free resources regarding college and career planning for students across the state. Query said the pandemic has caused an increase in non-traditional students seeking help from her organization. 

“There’s been a good number of students who have not matriculated straight to college due to the pandemic,” said Query. “They are usually aged 21-23 but are still non-traditional. A lot of organizations need to rethink what non-traditional students look like.” 

Dedicated Programs

According to a case study in the 2022 National Prospective Student Survey conducted by Simpson Scarborough, WGU is an example of higher education built for students. WGU offers a competency-based learning model, which measures students based on their abilities and competencies and grants them credit for what they know. Bell said this is also known as “a prior learning assessment.” 

“The competency model creates a loyalty between the institution and student that allows them to stay even when things get hard,” said Bell. 

The flexibility of WGU’s program also meets the needs of non-traditional students with other priorities in life. 

“These students may have aging parents, jobs and a family; if something happens, and they need to give up something, what will they give up? They will give up the degree program because of the other responsibilities,” stated Bell. “The more flexibility traditional colleges can have, the more likely the adult learners can stay.”

Despite being fully remote, WGU offers a mentor for each student. They are required to meet once a week to help guide the student through the program and keep them accountable along their education journey. Bell stated the implementation of a mentor system increases the support for students, which helps them problem-solve issues so they won’t necessarily have to withdraw when life happens. 

According to Busteed, the biggest driver in this increasing trend of non-traditional students is employers offering benefits in their employment packages that allow employees to go to school with their tuition paid for by the company. While this trend suits online universities that are catered towards working adults, traditional brick-and-mortar universities will have to rise to the challenge of accommodating the needs of an increased non-traditional student population. 

“Non-traditional students don’t have much value for physical campus facilities like dorms and residence halls. Most are enrolling due to online programs. So then, we need to think about how much we invest in a physical campus versus a virtual campus. It forces institutions to think carefully. Do I raise money to build a new building or raise money to launch a virtual careers center?” Busteed stated. 

As more employers offer benefits that include sponsoring the education of employees, some brick-and-mortar universities have taken note and have designed programs suited to meet the needs of these non-traditional students and their employers.

Jenny Petty, the vice president of marketing and communications for the University of Montana, said her institution has an “Accelerate Montana” program that is a “workforce developing arm that is employment-sponsored education.” She said that, with this program, the university is seeing growth concerning non-traditional student enrollment. 

“[The Accelerate Montana program] develops models that have built-in time with the instructors and are really focused on essentials of customer service,” said Brian Reed, the associate vice provost for student success at the University of Montana. “These are for no credit because they are connected to business needs.” 

According to Reed, 25% of the University of Montana’s student population is 24 or older. He said that, with the increase of online learning, the message to brick-and-mortar institutions is clear: “You don’t have enough on-ramps and off-ramps for the way people want to pursue education these days.” 

Should universities with physical campuses wish to do well in the non-traditional student market, they need to cater to the needs of adult learners, which are highly different from the needs of an 18-year-old fresh out of high school. Reed said that Brigham Young University (BYU) has done a great job through its online model that caters to non-traditional students. BYU’s online program offers stackable credits, and each student starts in a certificate program. That way, if a student’s circumstances change, they can still leave with a certificate at the very least. This can lead to an associate’s degree, which can lead to a bachelor’s degree. 

“There’s a push and pull between quality and time that learners have to grapple with,” said Reed. “Even two years is a little long, so that’s where stackable credits come in and what I would encourage institutions to do.” 

Reed said that the University of Montana is also developing certificate programs catering more to non-traditional students. There are currently 12-13 certificate programs, including a beer brewing program. 

Other universities around the nation are following suit in developing their online programs and certificates to cater to the growing needs of non-traditional students. Rick Sluder is the vice provost for student success and the dean of university for Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU). 

“The marketplace for adults is tougher than previously, so we expanded our online offerings from 14 online programs to 36 in the past 12 months based on what students need,” said Sluder.

MTSU’s University College offers an Adult Degree Completion Program, which is described as the “largest in the state.” 

“We also have corporate partnerships, so we work hard to make sure students have support from their employers; we have 14 partnerships right now, like Mcdonald’s which brings employees onto our virtual campus,” said Sluder. “We have tuition discounts, and more recently, public safety agencies. There is a lot of room in there to make sure we have additional education for the non-traditional student.” 

Like WGU, MTSU offers a prior learning assessment for which students bring experience into the intuition and receive credit. 

“There’s a lot of competition for the non-traditional student market now,” Sluder noted. “We also work with the Education Advisory Board (EAB) for special recruitment for adults, and we contract with them to be able to get as many adult students that we can in a sophisticated way through using high order analytics and tracking systems and computer databases to encourage prospects to come to MTSU.”

As universities continue to encourage non-traditional students to attend, institutions must also grapple with the fact that marketing to these students is very different from marketing to an average 18-year-old teenager. 

Keene said that what a traditional college student is looking for in a university is going to differ vastly from the relationship a non-traditional student has with their university. 

“A lot of the time, a non-traditional student is thinking, ‘who is going to give me the degree,’ versus ‘what is the community, relationship and long-term tradition’ that a traditional student sees at the alma mater,” said Keene. 

Building a community for these non-traditional students is going to be a big challenge for colleges. 

“A lot of the community building processes are built on being 18, and the thing is that, when you are 21 or 22, it doesn’t integrate,” said Keene. “We are looking to reimagine what our first year of programming looks like. We need to build a community for all of them and not just high-achieving 18-year-olds that come in.” 

Marketing Factors

However, the question remains—how can universities, who have built their bread and butter on the traditional student, manage to survive and integrate a growing populace of non-traditional students? For one, the marketing toward a traditional versus non-traditional student has to be different. 

Query said there are difficulties in marketing toward students no longer in high school. According to Query, CFNC tries to reach non-traditional students by reaching out to local businesses and offering free presentations and lunches to talk about higher education. 

“We’ve worked with our financial aid offices across the state to try to work with human resource offices at the largest employers in small rural counties,” said Query. 

She said that the organization also has two Spanish outreach services that work with local community colleges. 

Despite efforts to market, she said that marketing to this demographic of adult learners is difficult due to their unique needs with childcare, finances and work responsibilities. 

“This is a population that is growing, and growing more than we anticipated because of Covid-19,” said Query. “It’s important to keep in mind it’s not done changing, lots of students are doing manual labor jobs instead of going to college. Those jobs are hard on their bodies, so they may come back to get an education 5 years from now.” 

As non-traditional students eventually become the majority of college students in the United States, universities must grapple with how they will survive in these changing times. Reed believes that the future of higher education is those institutions that are willing to do a little bit of everything. 

“There will always be a market for brick-and-mortar experiences, but the institutions that do well will be ones that offer microcredit and remote learning,” said Reed. “Universities will survive if they can diversify what they offer and how they offer it.” 

 

Tavleen Tarrant

Tavleen Tarrant

Reporter

Tavleen Tarrant is a graduate of the Masters in Journalism program at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where she specialized in documentary filmmaking. She is a freelance journalist who writes about gender, the global economy, migration, labor rights, politics, and everything in between. She holds a Bachelor of Arts and Social Sciences in International Relations with first-class honors from the University of New South Wales and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and International Relations from the University of Queensland.

 


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