Published on 2017/02/24

Access and the “Traditional Student” of the 21st Century: An Imperative for Universities

The EvoLLLution | Access and the “Traditional Student” of the 21st Century: An Imperative for Universities
As the majority population enrolling in and attending postsecondary institutions skews more and more towards the non-traditional demographic, college and university leaders must consciously examine their policies and processes to ensure they’re suited to this older, more discerning group of students.

“Tradition is a guide and not a jailer.” W. Somerset Maugham

Not since the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, also known as the G.I. Bill, has the student population at universities differed so much from what was previously thought of as the norm. Not only have the demographics related to age, gender and ethnic background shifted significantly so have aspects related to employment (prior to study and concurrent with attendance at a university) and responsibilities.

While the “traditional” student of the last century—the 18- to 24-year-old who first entered college directly from high school viewing this as the next automatic step in life, supported by parents with clear expectations that the children would follow in their path and go to a university, graduate in a reasonable period of time and only then get a full-time job—still exists, this definition by any stretch does not fit a large percentage of the current undergraduate population at universities.

First-generation students, older returning adults and veterans, students balancing jobs and study, students with significant family responsibilities including as the primary wage earner and caregiver, all make up the undergraduate body.

So then who is a “traditional student” and are we even correct in differentiating between “traditional” and “non-traditional” students today? Even more importantly are our views, grounded in the realities of the last century, affecting our abilities to provide access and ensure success of our current population? While we may not want to look at these questions with a critical eye since they could shake our very foundations, we must, since the answers provide the direction for our future. In fact they define the imperatives for universities in the 21st century.

The pipelines that we used to speak of wherein students moved smoothly from high school to a four-year institution, have been replaced in large part by pathways with some students moving from a high school to a community college and then to a four-year institution while others go back and forth across more than two institutions or are even enrolled concurrently at a two-year college and a four-year university. This creates a need for very different admissions processes, structured articulation agreements and support systems to ensure student success after enrollment at a university. The idea of a simple cohort where all students started together as freshmen is an antiquated concept as is the notion that all students irrespective of background and prior experience should take exactly the same coursework. Our lack of focus on the transition from a pipeline-dominated world to one of complex, interacting, and overlapping pathways has led to serious issues of transferability of courses with students wasting time and money and becoming disheartened about progress rather than being excited by the opportunities of higher education.

At the University of Texas at Arlington we strive to ensure the success of both our freshmen and our transfer students. Incoming numbers of both populations continue to increase as we take special care to not only build seamless pathways but also support the success of each student. This in large part has resulted in our being ranked by US News and World Report as the third-largest destination in the nation for transfer students based on its 2015 survey of undergraduate programs, even as the number of incoming freshmen and their academic achievement as measured by rank in high school graduating class increases.

A large percentage of our students today are faced with the pressure of balancing academics with the realities of life. A degree is then, not just the next step in life but, one of the goals that has to be balanced with other competing, and at times more important, priorities. Often the demands of work, domestic and family responsibilities have to be shouldered side-by-side with academics. Many of these students already work full time or at multiple jobs side-by-side with their academic pursuits and even full scholarships cannot cover the financial realities of being the breadwinner and primary caregiver.

We need to address these needs upfront recognizing that a “traditional” 15-week semester bound curriculum could well be a barrier to progression and completion. At the University of Texas at Arlington we offer a number of degree programs that have terms with lengths between five and 15 weeks with multiple starts through the year rather than the traditional starts in fall and spring. This enables students who are working to continue their studies at a pace, and in periods, that better match their lives. We must remember that our desire to have them undertake a “traditional” full-time curriculum competes with their realities of life—not just of work but also those related to family responsibilities, which cannot be placed on hold while they complete a degree.

For these and other returning adult students a degree means more than the mastery of knowledge. It comes with a distinct focus on talent and skills development bringing a vocational emphasis on the end goal which is one of rapid entry to, or progression in, the workforce. Some of these students bring with them substantial work experience as is the case with a large number of our nursing students who come back to the university a few years after completing their associates degrees, having worked in hospitals and in healthcare facilities as licensed registered nurses. For these and other students who are already members of a highly skilled workforce there is an inherent competition between personal and professional priorities that result in the need for rapid impact of higher education and the maximization of outcomes. Modes and mechanisms of access as well as support to ensure success are inherently different for these students from the more “traditional” students who start as “first time in college” freshmen.

There is no doubt that we need to modify our approaches to effectively serve these populations, not just at the point of entry, but also prior to and after matriculation, so as to ensure appropriate levels of support to ensure success. But just these steps are not enough. We need to modify our thinking and measures of success as well. The commonly held, and pursued, metrics of 4- and 6-year graduation rates, as defined, only include first time in college (FTIC) students in itself a shrinking percentage of the overall incoming population, which leaves out transfer students as a whole. In addition the very notion that all students should graduate in 4, or even 6, years belies the reality of balancing life and academics for a growing segment of our population. A person with a family, perhaps also serving as caregiver to elderly parents, does want to complete a degree but progress will be predicated on balancing responsibilities. Unless we are prepared to support their families and completely address all their responsibilities the time period that we expect for completion is unrealistic. We need to remember that paying tuition alone, or even the full cost of attendance, could be a small percentage of the overall need. Metrics matter but selecting ones appropriate to our mission and to reality matters even more.

Similarly our notion that all students need to start at the same two points in time, a fall and spring semester, is no longer valid. Technology enables us to have multiple starts through the year and we have the ability to engage our students at a variety of levels rather than at the least common denominator. Metrics can again drive, or restrict, our progress. Measuring populations on two census dates corresponding to the “traditional” fall and spring starts are useful points of comparison. In reality, however, a more dynamic and continuous count is needed enabling greater flexibility in offerings.

Enhancing mechanisms of access, enabling integration of effort across the pathways taken by students to gain a degree, re-envisioning metrics of comparison as measures of success to actually represent reality, all these and many more aspects need to be addressed with a new view of the actual population we serve today. In doing so we need to remember that traditions are wonderful, and to be cherished, but should not be allowed to become constraints to progress in serving our students.

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