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Fostering Belonging Key to Non-Traditional Student Success

The EvoLLLution | Fostering Belonging Key to Non-Traditional Student Success
Creating a better sense of connection between non-traditional students and other students on campus is critical to integrating this large, but siloed, population of learners into the campus community.

Non-traditional students are one of the most researched and discussed populations in higher education today. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in order for someone to be defined as a non-traditional student, the student must meet at least one of the following characteristics:

  • Delayed enrollment in postsecondary education
  • Financially independent
  • Working at least part time while enrolled
  • Is a single parent
  • Not obtained a standard high school diploma
  • Has dependents other than a spouse

Reasons for the NCES defining this population in such a specific way are intended to make it easier for institutions to gather data and track students. However, 2012 study by the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA), in partnership with Inside Track, revealed that 43 percent of responding institutions did not track retention for non-traditional students and 77 percent did not know current degree completion rates for their non-traditional students. The study also revealed that only 16 percent of institutions understand the core issues of snon-traditional student attrition.[1] As a caveat, I would argue that the NCES definition remains narrow and does not truly reflect the non-traditional learners I work with on a regular basis. In my experience non-traditional students are becoming the new norm, especially with an ever-increasing number of military veterans returning to school and they don’t always meet the standardized definition developed by the NCES.

According to Cross, non-traditional students should be defined as any adult enrolled in school at least part-time while maintaining responsibilities such as employment and/or family obligations.[2] Generally, this broad definition encompasses all non-traditional student population characteristics under the higher education umbrella and trumps any modern definition in existence.

Today, adults or non-traditional learners make up a minimum of nearly 73 percent of all higher education enrollments.[3] However, enrollment is just the beginning. Many surveys show that non-traditional students present a higher risk of dropping out.[4] Therefore, the goal for institutions of higher education should not be enrollment alone, but to demonstrate student success and persistence through the completion of degrees and other credentials.

In order to demonstrate success, the topic of engagement for non-traditional students in higher education comes center stage. According to Gilardi and Guglielmetti, engagement typically measures both the time and energy students devote to academic activities as well as how students perceive institutional environment that potentially facilitates and supports learning.[5]

Ultimately, engagement through the sense of belonging can be one of the most powerful tools institutions of higher education can employ to ensuring student success. Here are a few suggestions that colleges and universities should consider in order to foster a sense of belonging (engagement) in non-traditional students:

Institutional Culture and Support

While many institutions are creating progressive programs to overcome traditional institutional barriers, it is important to note flexibility and adaptation as two aspects of institutional culture that non-traditional students value the most. In today’s environment, the needs of non-traditional students continue to change; therefore, setting up organizational infrastructures that can easily adapt to these needs is of vital importance.

For example, providing pre-entry and early transition support to assist with institutional processes, resource identification, and financial aid concerns can be crucial. Pre-entry student counseling that emphasizes the importance of a support system might also help students evaluate what existing support they might have available and what gaps exist. Pre-entry support that engages students early in their decision-making phase of returning to school is especially ideal for non-traditional students. The challenge for institutions is finding ways to connect with students during this phase and foster a sense of belonging that will help students continue coming back again and again as they need help over the course of their academic career.

Academic Practice

Best practices from those working directly with non-traditional students typically set the stage for engagement and success. According to Rendon, Jalomo and Nora, “non-traditional students do not perceive involvement as them taking the initiative. They perceive it when someone takes an active role in assisting them.”[6] In my everyday experience working with returning non-traditional college students there tends to be a lot of truth in this statement. While self-directed learning is promoted and encouraged, the overwhelming stress of initiating one’s academic pursuits can prevent them from moving forward or persisting. I find that when students receive a good amount of one-on-one informational sessions in the beginning they are more likely to persist and continue to the next stage, which is enrollment. Generally, initial advisement that focuses on the best fit of a major and helps students to clarify their educational goals can be beneficial to solidifying their academic purpose. However, this does not come without a great deal of effort and initial relationship building between the advisor and student.

Continued engagement throughout one’s academic career is where many institutions try and often fail for non-traditional students. When there is little time to make a formal investment in an academic community, the opportunity to engage through one-on-one practice and informal opportunities meant to guide students can make the difference in retention efforts. Non-traditional student persistence may not necessarily be related to WHAT happens in the classroom but, rather, that the classroom provides the setting in which non-traditional students feel like a student, and the self-efficacy that comes with being able to perform in the academic arena. In a 2012 study surrounding non-traditional approaches to non-traditional students, Buglione revealed that the classroom is the only higher education connection for non-traditional students.[7] This creates and mandates enormous opportunity and responsibility for faculty.

Tinto stated, “Retention requires that a student see him or herself as belonging to at least one significant community and find meaning in the involvements that occur within that community.[8] A significant community in which non-traditional students might find meaning or connection is the academic community, which can give them the sense that they belong at the institution as a result of academic competence. Therefore, it is important that faculty help non-traditional students understand the value of proactive behavior in their academic pursuits.

Developing a relationship between the advisor and the student is a best practice that can be especially difficult, particularly for the overworked faculty member. However, it is important to set aside the time for building and fostering these relationships as non-traditional learners do not readily self-form the support groups that are typically established among their traditional-age peers.

Learning Support Services

Non-traditional students require many different kinds of support and assistance from family, friends and institutions of higher education. This can include library resources, evening lectures, pod study, tutoring, writing resources, career counseling services, online forums, non-traditional student organizations, etc. The scope of learning support services greatly depends on the size and focus of the institution. However a general rule to follow is that those working with directly with non-traditional students must use retention strategies that incorporate career assessments on campus, establish study groups, assign faculty mentors and initiate on-campus activities. All of which potentially increase the likelihood of assisting the non-traditional student in feeling more part of the college campus.

Socialization Opportunities

Individuals have an innate tendency to scan their environments, looking for others with whom they identify. Online forums, networking opportunities, community events and formal/informal organizations all provide great opportunities for non-traditional students to socialize and develop a sense of belonging within colleges and universities. Research by Gilardi and Guglielmetti indicates that non-traditional students put more energy into informal contact outside formal teaching situations than traditional students.[9] According to Kasworm, relational engagement through informal contact can help students develop their own student identity even in non-residential contexts such as online programs. This plays a crucial role in retention through a stronger sense of integration for non-traditional students.[10]

Overall, enrolling in higher education for the non-traditional student is an intentional life choice, not typically decided on a whim.[11] Higher education institutions, particularly faculty and staff within those institutions, can prioritize the early transition experiences for non-traditional students by helping them to clarify their educational goal commitment; helping them to understand their academic purpose; and helping them develop their student identity. If commitment to the educational goal is important, finding ways to keep the goal in front of them when times get tough is crucial.

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[1] University Professional and Continuing Education Association [UPCEA] & Inside Track. (2012). Measuring non-traditional student success: An imperative for colleges and universities. Retrieved from content/uploads/2013/09/insidetrack_upcea_measuringnon-traditional-studentsuccess.pdf

[2] Cross, K.P. (1981). Adults as learners. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

[3] U.S Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (2002). Non-traditional undergraduates. Retrieved September 2, 2015, from coe/2002/analyses/non-traditional

[4] Provasnik, S., & Planty, M. (2008). Community college: Special supplement to the condition of education 2008. Washington DC: National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.

[5] Gilardi, S., & Guglielmetti, C. (2011). University Life of Non-Traditional Students: Engagement Styles and Impact on Attrition. Journal Of Higher Education, 82(1), 33-53.

[6] Rendón, L. I., Jalomo, R. E., & Nora, A. (2000). Theoretical considerations in the study of minority student retention in higher education. In J. M. Braxton (Ed.), Reworking the student departure puzzle (pp. 127–156). Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press.

[7] Buglione, S. M. (2012). Non-traditional approaches with non-traditional students: Experiences of learning, service and identity development (Order No. 3511270). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (1022639590).

[8] Tinto, V. (2012). Completing college: Rethinking institutional action. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

[9] Gilardi & Guglielmetti (2011)

[10] Kasworm, C. (2005). Adult student identity in an intergenerational community college classroom. Adult Education Quarterly, 56(1), 3–20.

[11] Ibid

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