Published on 2015/09/21

Re-Conceptualizing Student Services for the Non-Traditional Learner


The EvoLLLution | ¬¬Re-Conceptualizing Student Services for the Non-Traditional Learner
Succeeding in the provision of student services requires more than just having a counseling office; institutional leaders must really understand their non-traditional students and create an engaging environment that meets their expectations at every level.

In the early days of online learning, institutions that embraced online education enjoyed limited competition and strong student demand, driven in large part by the convenience and access that new online programs offered. The focus was on scaling to meet student demand and building quality online programs. Targeted student services to personalize learning and help promote student success fell lower down on the priority list.

Much has changed since then. Many institutions now view serving non-traditional students as vital to their success. A growing recognition that most students are now non-traditional, coupled with our national imperative to improve access to education have helped shift attention to improving rates of retention and student success and ways to help less academically prepared students succeed in college-level work.

Student services themselves have also evolved substantially. Services that were once considered differentiators, such as professional academic advising and online tutoring, have now become mainstream. More importantly, student services are beginning to be seen as having a direct role to play in pedagogy and student learning. Universal design, for example, has helped move the conversation from how to serve students with disabilities to how universal design principles can improve course quality and benefit all learners. Likewise, data analytics is moving from a set of services to support retention to a mechanism to bring personalized and adaptive learning into courses. Other examples, such as community engaged learning and “high-impact” instructional approaches, signal a move to a view of learning as part of an integrated ecosystem of services that support student success.

This expansion of student support resources has enormous potential, but many challenges remain. Successful initiatives will be built on a clear understanding of the audiences we serve and a strategic integration of these services into the learning space. A few of the foundational issues that need to be considered include the following:

1. Meeting Unique Needs and Expectations

Non-traditional learners constitute a diverse group, and often have dramatically different needs and expectations than traditional-age students. But because these students are generally not on campus during normal working hours, if at all, they tend to be invisible. Generating awareness of these less visible non-traditional learners is an ongoing challenge.

2. Leveraging Available Resources

How can we help support faculty to best leverage the resources available to them? Faculty are the most important point of contact students have, not just for learning but for retention as well. Effective student support amplifies the impact that faculty can have on student learning and student success. As student services evolve, careful thought needs to be given to how we help faculty effectively integrate and communicate the value of these resources to their students.

3. Defining Appropriate Service Provision

How do we determine what the “right” level of service is for a particular audience? In our zeal to improve retention metrics, it is easy to think that more contact with students is always better, but each student brings different needs and wants. The level of proactive outreach that might help one student be successful may be viewed as intrusive or counter-productive to another. How we align the sometimes bewildering array of support services and outreach efforts to get those services in front of students is critically important.

4. Focusing on Convenience

Do your student services meet the learner when and where they are? Do students have to come to campus to utilize resources? Are those services offered at times that are convenient for working students? Your students may surprise you. Online students, for example, may be very interested in meeting with support staff in person.

5. Identifying Weaknesses

What are the weak areas in your student services approach? Have you walked through the student experience from beginning to end to understand what the processes at your institution actually look like from the student perspective? Sometimes we get the big pieces right, but neglect the smaller details that can have a huge impact on the student experience. An exemplary advising team, for example, is of less value if online students can’t access other key services at times and places that are convenient for them.

6. Maintaining a Collaborative Environment

To what extent does the advising team function as a feedback loop for the institution? Do they work closely enough with the academic departments to be able to effectively guide students through their program of study? Because academic advisors work so closely with such a broad cross-section of students and other support areas, they often know the most about what is working for students and what is not. Empowering advisors to be strong student advocates is one pathway to help us understand student needs and guide positive change.


The rapid change happening in all facets of online learning reflects the reality that there is still much work to be done to reach the full potential of online education. As we seek to be responsive to student needs, we walk a delicate balance between meeting the demands of the market for non-traditional education and remaining true to our fundamental charge to define for our students what high quality learning looks like. Implemented properly, a strong focus on student services can have a tremendously positive impact on our ability to deliver quality programs.

Everyone wins when we not just help more students succeed but help each student see the learning that happens in each course as part of a larger evolution in their own development.

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Readers Comments

Daryl Curtis 2015/09/21 at 9:10 am

Academic advisors are absolutely in a position to do more to advocate for students at both the department and the broader institutional level. While faculty may remain the first point of contact for students, the advisors often have a more clear picture of what is and isn’t working, and also has the access required to take concerns to a higher level.

krysta stone 2015/09/21 at 12:42 pm

As much as we’re now facing new challenges in terms of differentiation, it really is amazing that all of these once-differentiating student service offerings are now the norm. Definitely bodes well for student success going forward.

David Weber 2015/09/21 at 2:24 pm

This also shows that we do need to get better at taking these norms and actually tailoring them to our own specific non-traditional populations. Just because a particular service or mode of delivery is the best for a number of schools, that doesn’t mean we get out of doing the work to find out if it’s what our students need, and if it isn’t, adapting it to fit better.

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