Part 1: Student Demographics: Nontraditional Students are the New Normal
Part 1: Student Demographics: Nontraditional Students are the New Normal
Nick Jacobs
Nick Jacobs

Part 1: Student Demographics: Nontraditional Students are the New Normal

This blog is the first in a four-part series about the current demographics of students in postsecondary settings and how to address their specific needs with a multi-tiered system.

The reasons for pursuing a postsecondary degree are unique to each student, and the amalgam of experience, goals, and characteristics they possess influences their motivation for completing their degree. At the same time, postsecondary institutions have the power to cultivate student success through their academic and support services. Particular groups of students, such as nontraditional, disabled, low-income, and language learner students, have specific needs both on and off their physical campus that require attention. Colleges and universities need to adjust to meet the changing needs of their student population. This four-part blog series explores the current demographics of each of these student groups and the ways in which postsecondary institutions can better ensure–rather than diminish–successful results for some of their most vulnerable students.

“The term “nontraditional,” when we consider the connotations and nuance of such a label, is in and of itself problematic. The message is that there is a “traditional” student (likely an undergraduate living on campus and attending school full-time), and an “other” student, one who deviates from the norm and breaks the flow of “traditional.”

The Language of the “Nontraditional” Student

The term “nontraditional,” when we consider the connotations and nuance of such a label, is in and of itself problematic. The message is that there is a “traditional” student (likely an undergraduate living on campus and attending school full-time), and an “other” student, one who deviates from the norm and breaks the flow of “traditional.” Typically, this refers to students who are over the age of 25 and most likely have careers, dependents, and/or significant obligations outside of school, meaning nontraditional students can be defined a number of way that are not represented in most data sets. The demographics of all students, both part-time and full-time, indicate that “nontraditional” students (over the age of 25) are just as likely to be the norm. This shift in language is important because nontraditional students have lower graduation rates than traditional students: just under half of nontraditional students (49.8%) graduated from four-year institutions within six years compared to 64.7% of traditional students (National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators). Nontraditional students  need additional support and collaboration to succeed, and one way to initiate that conversation is to help them feel as much a part of the school community as everyone else. Rob Jenkins, an associate professor of English, writes that this group is the “new traditional” student, which conjures language that is more inclusive and accurate.

Demographics for Nontraditional Students

To get a clear picture of how common new traditional students are, student services and and instructors should recognize that 41% of students in degree-granting postsecondary institutions are 25 years of age or older. That percentage decreases to 25% among full-time students, but increases to two-thirds of the population – 66% – of part-time students (National Center for Education Statistics, 2015). Additionally, nearly 30% of students enrolled in postsecondary institutions (undergraduate and graduate) have at least one distance learning course, while 14.4% are exclusively distance learners (NCES, 2015). Not only are new traditional students a large percentage of our student populations, but they likely have limited contact with the institution because they are either part-time or distance learners; therefore, the interactions and time we have with new traditional students should be thoughtful and of high quality if we are to see them through to graduation. (For more details on enrollment and graduation rates, see this 2013 report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center).

How to Support New Traditional Students

Students are going to have contact with our campuses through student services offices and resources. Below are some possibilities for institutions to explore as ways to support new traditional students in order to improve their experiences and retention.

Student Services

  • Financial Aid: Plan and communicate guidance for submitting forms and regularly update students on opportunities for scholarships, grants, and ways to minimize costs. Consider special scholarships for parents, caregivers, and single parents.
  • Late or Virtual Office Hours: New traditional students still need access to all of the resources an institution can offer but cannot always access them during daytime hours. Choosing a few days a month or enlisting additional staff in the evenings means new traditional students can get what they need later in the day. Another option is to have virtual office hours where students can seek help through an online platform like Conexed so they do not have to travel to campus every time they need something.
  • Child care: Child care on campus should be accessible and affordable and have flexible hours that extend across the day to accommodate all schedules. Allow parents to drop off children by the hour rather than paying a monthly tuition so that they are only paying for the hours they are in class. Provide resources for finding babysitters and caregivers and provide drop-off care during intense academic times, like registration, finals, and other institution-wide deadlines
  • Programming for Families: Campuses often have movie nights, hosted parties, and speaking events for students but should also plan these or other events with families in mind. New traditional students may love bringing their children to a free family movie or a parent to hear a speaker. Bringing students on campus more often is a win-win.
  • Rolling Admissions and Pausing Enrollment: New traditional students may have differing needs when it comes to scheduling. Fall may not necessarily be the best time to start an academic endeavor or a life event may cause a new traditional student to pause working on their degree. Rolling admissions would accommodate more students and let them start when it works best for them, while allowing students to delay their enrollment without penalty means they are less likely to drop out.
  • Differentiated Orientation: Designing an orientation program that honors both the experience and trepidation a new traditional student may have will help them feel more welcome and like an important part of the school’s student body; finding the balance between joining traditional and new traditional students is dependent on the demographics and culture of each institution.

New traditional students bring a wealth of diverse experiences and backgrounds to our campuses. The fact that they make up half of all students and the majority of part-time students indicates that how we anticipate and monitor their needs may be grossly inaccurate. We can provide new traditional students with direct support that makes obtaining a degree more practical and achievable. We can start with the language we use to describe this population so we communicate from the very start that we welcome students of all ages and life situations and that our aim is for “traditional” to be synonymous with “graduate.”

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