Published on 2013/04/18

Five Critical Services for Non-Traditional Students

Five Critical Services for Non-Traditional Students
As the number of non-traditional students on postsecondary campuses across the United States grows steadily, institutions must develop and deliver services that cater to the needs of this unique group.

A large number of non-traditional students enroll in traditional education programs across the country every year. The varied circumstances of these individuals differ from those of a traditional student and, therefore, require different types of services and assistance from the university. Though my undergraduate university offers many first-rate services for non-traditional students, our demographic is growing and I recognize room for improvement.

Here are the top five services every university should have for non-traditional students:

1. Office dedicated to non-traditional students

An office specific to non-traditional students is imperative because much of the population is not on campus during regular business hours. The office should have advisors available to meet with students in the evening or on weekends, advisors who understand the outside commitments many older students may have. It should have referral services for tutoring, financial aid assistance, scholarships, mentoring programs for non-traditional students by non-traditional students, an active organization that participates in campus activities and other services such as an after-hours drop-off/pick-up delivery service to and from other departments.

2. Tutoring or refresher courses for non-traditional students

Typical tutoring at my undergraduate university meant showing up for the free one-hour weekly session, attempting to learn concepts I had not seen in more than 20 years and then receiving the astonished or exasperated looks from the tutor in his or her early 20s who could not grasp why this was difficult for me. If these types of general education classes are going to be mandatory for all non-traditional students, those who have had a significant gap in their education should have access to significant tutoring or non-graded refresher courses for subjects such as algebra, calculus, chemistry and foreign languages.

3. Housing

Housing on campus or in surrounding neighborhoods should be provided for non-traditional students and could make attending a university more economical. Individuals could opt for shared housing on a dedicated floor of a dorm or in a flat with other non-traditional or graduate students. A limited number of rental apartments that traditional students share in apartment complexes surrounding a campus could be offered to full-time students with families that have limited incomes and meet financial aid requirements.

4. Advisors

In my case, advising became more complicated and frustrating over time. I started with an advisor for non-traditional students. Unfortunately, once I completed all of the general education requirements, the advisor could no longer advise me on my degree path, but they became more of a source of guidance. Once I declared two majors and one minor, I had three advisors from different departments. These advisors were overloaded professors who would tick off boxes on the core checklist. One professor/advisor whom I had never taken a course with told me that since I had not attended an Ivy League school, coupled with the fact that I was too old, I would potentially never gain a job in the field that I aspired to after graduation. I left that appointment stunned and confused, wondering if I had made a huge mistake returning to school. I approached a professor I knew in the department and asked if she would be my advisor. The professor agreed and it turned out to be one of the best decisions I made while at that university.

My point is that the advising process can be convoluted and that not all advisors are equipped to deal with non-traditional students. In my experience, departments do not talk to each other or tell you that one class might fill requirements for another department. I was proactive and did a lot of research after the first semester, when I realized I also wanted to pursue a master’s program. If that had not been the case, I would not have taken specific courses as electives that were requirements for the master’s programs that I later applied for.

5. Career counseling

It is important for career centers to understand that restructuring a resume, interviewing, discussing internships and advising for future careers often requires a different approach with a traditional versus non-traditional student. It involves a person who is familiar with the challenges of reentering the workforce or knowledgeable about which industries are willing to accept significant previous work experience from a different industry instead of requiring multiple internships. Moreover, it necessitates understanding why a non-traditional student might not be in a position to intern for free, whereas a traditional student might. It means rethinking the one-size-fits-all model that currently exists.

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Readers Comments

Cindy Lauer 2013/04/18 at 9:31 am

I’m not convinced that housing is one of the critical services an institution should be offering non-traditional students. In my experience, this group of students tends to be of an age and stage in life where they have settled down in secure housing arrangements. However, I think the spirit behind offering housing — that is, recognizing that support goes beyond the classroom — is a good one. Some supports a university or college might consider offering ahead of housing could be child care or subsidized transportation (to and from campus).

    lori perkovich 2013/04/18 at 12:54 pm

    Those are also great ideas that I considered, but in interacting with other non-tradition students at the university that I attended, housing was a big issue. We had a large population of single students/parents in need of better options near campus that would then alleviate the transportation.

Kevin Wilson 2013/04/18 at 8:04 pm

As an adult student, I can attest to the usefulness of refresher courses. I had been out of school for about 18 years by the time I decided to return to finish a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry. The little I could still remember from Gr. 12 biology and a one-semester course in cell biology was not enough to help me pass my first-year biology credit. I squeaked by with a 56%. My institution didn’t offer refresher courses, which made the first few semesters very difficult as I struggled to re-learn what I had forgotten and keep pace with my classmates, most of whom were fresh out of high school and could still recall the key concepts they had been taught. A refresher course, offered as a non-credit option and taught by someone with the training to work with adult and other non-traditional students, would have been helpful for someone like me.

Elizabeth Sheppard 2013/04/20 at 9:30 pm

I agree that schools need to have these critical services. I think a Nontraditional Student Group is also invaluable to helping nontraditional students feel at home and make friends and contacts. Schools can also offer study halls, lockers, and different class types and times to work into nontrad schedules. I enjoyed your article. Thanks for sharing!

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