—Co-written with Melissa Cunningham | Club Committees Officer, Seminole State College of Florida—

Five Ways for Colleges and Universities to Better Serve Adults
Higher education institutions need to adapt to the increasing numbers of non-traditional students enrolling in postsecondary programs.

The majority of college students are not carefree 18 to 22-year-olds studying full time, living on campus, attending frat parties and returning home for summer vacation. Many are parents seeking new professional skills, personal growth, career advancement and a better future. In his study presented to the Secretary of Education, Peter Stokes pointed out that traditional-aged students only account for 16 percent of the student population in the United States. Today, non-traditional students are the majority. Outdated methods of enrolling and educating students need retrofitting.

Non-traditional students have lived, learned, grown and acquired wisdom and maturity. They come with prior degrees and careers, business and work experience and street smarts. They turn to higher education for many reasons; personal dreams, divorce, empty nest, increased earning potential, career advancement or finding an entirely new career. These students have many day-to-day demands and responsibilities. In addition to attending school, non-traditional students are working, raising families, caring for a home, contending with health issues and caring for their aging parents.

Currently, our higher learning institutions are neither designed nor equipped to meet the needs of this new student majority. Yet a few simple changes will improve the non-traditional college experience considerably:

1. Tailored Advising and Counseling

Tailor-made advising ensures that non-traditional students are not jeopardizing their limited time and resources. Non-traditional students want to partner with a specialist they can make their “go-to” person for the duration of their program. Colleges need to train student success specialists who understand the unique needs of the non-traditional student. These specialists should be professionals that non-traditional students feel understand them. These specialists must have a genuine respect and understanding of non-traditional students’ self-knowledge. These students are driven; get to know their strengths and weaknesses.

2. Dedicated Non-Traditional Student Orientations

Schedule dedicated non-traditional student orientations where new students are able to meet their fellow incoming peers and specialist advisors. Current non-traditional students should attend, share personal experiences, offer encouragement and invite the new students to join the non-traditional student organization on campus. This way, new students immediately have a peer network, information and resources specific to their future college experience. Dedicated orientations will also prevent non-traditional students from being mistakenly directed to the parent orientation, as happens all too often.

3. Target Marketing Campaigns and Community Outreach to Non-Traditional Students

Colleges and universities need to target marketing efforts to non-traditional students. Featuring current non-traditional students’ stories and alumni accomplishments will elicit more of a response than current marketing campaigns targeted at high school students. As soon as those in the community realize they will fit in, that there is support and that they possess the potential to succeed, colleges and universities will see increased enrollment.

4. A Central Resource for Assistance and Information

Non-traditional students need easy access to information and resources on a wide range of subject areas, including (but not limited to):

  • Childcare
  • Transportation
  • Food
  • Healthcare
  • Employment
  • Clothing
  • Everyday necessities

Non-traditional students are often unaware of what is available to them on campus and in the community. Information about such resources will alleviate some of their struggles. Central resources can be student success specialists, an online student forum, peer mentors and/or student-run non-traditional student organizations.

5. Technology, Arts and Sciences Workshops and Support

Non-traditional students often embark on higher education with little technology savvy. Often it has been 10 or more years since these students were in school. Computers, PowerPoint, email and online homework were not present when they were previously enrolled in classes. Colleges need to provide basic skill sessions to non-traditional students in areas such as using a computer, navigating your college account and email, online homework course components, writing and submitting a paper on a computer and basic math review.

Conclusion

Non-traditional students must be an integral part of the transformation. As students ourselves, we are proud to attend an institution that listens to our requests for change. We have worked with amazing faculty and staff to implement these initiatives over the last year. We have already seen a significant improvement in the college experience for many students. While still at the beginning of the process, there is much excitement about the future for this student demographic on our campus.

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Readers Comments

Rhonda White 2014/02/14 at 10:09 am

I see the value in offering skills workshops throughout the semester. Sometimes, students don’t think they’ll need a particular skill until they reach a unit in a course that requires it. At that point, they should be able to attend a workshop that gives them real-time help as they go through the unit. These types of workshops should be offered both online and in-person so adult students have multiple times and ways to access them.

Stephen Gotti 2014/02/14 at 12:27 pm

I agree with the above commenter. The challenge I currently see on campuses is that many adult students don’t know those types of resources exist. That’s where student success specialists, as Conner calls them, come in.

Incoming students should be assigned a specialist to work with for the duration of their programs. This allows them to build rapport, and ensures the specialist will understand the student’s circumstances fully and give the appropriate advice. Another thing specialists might consider is having adult students fill out a learning plan, tracking goals and successes along the way. That can help students to see their own progress and identify any remaining gaps to fill before they graduate.

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