Nine Factors that Drive Success for Non-Traditional LearnersCatherine Koverola | Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs, Cambridge College
I recently attended an alumnae event at one of our regional campuses and was deeply moved by the speech of a one of our alums, who shared her story as a non-traditional learner. She began her academic journey as a single mother raising a child on the autism spectrum while also working as a professional—truly someone with a full life. After first completing her undergraduate degree she began her graduate studies and is in the final semester of her graduate program. All this while founding a non- profit dedicated to autism awareness as well as hosting a radio program. In the speech she kept making reference to her experience at the college as one where she experienced a theme of “We got you.”
Whenever she questioned whether she was going to be successful or wondered if she was going to make it the finish line and get the coveted degree, inevitably one of the faculty, staff or administrators would reassure her and say, “no worries, we got you.” What follows are some concrete experiences that this alum referenced as demonstrating to her that we were serious about educating her as a non-traditional learner. Also included are some concrete strategies that our college has used successfully.
1. “The sense of community”
Non-traditional learners often begin with a sense of trepidation upon entry; they have typically been out of school for some time and often their previous college experiences were less than positive. And, they often believe that they are the only one with these self-doubts. It is important that the entire college community communicates a message of “we are in this together.” Faculty and staff play an important role in ensuring that there are “no stupid questions,” and that we are mutually supportive of one another. The sense of “I’m not in this alone” emerges from the lived experience of a community of faculty, staff and students who care for one another.
2. “Realizing that I could do this because people believed in me.”
This requires a team of faculty, advisors, tutors and mentors who are committed to the non-traditional student body. Who fundamentally believe that it is never too late to learn and that everyone deserves a shot at an education. It requires a team of faculty and academic staff who are readily available for just-in-time support well beyond the 9 to 5 hours.
3. “Faculty took my life experience seriously.”
This requires faculty who understand the value of lived experience and a commitment to an androgogical model of teaching. Institutions need to hire the appropriate faculty as well as provide them with professional development support to strengthen their teaching, particularly if the non-traditional learner population is new to them.
4. “Faculty engaged with me.”
Again this has to do with the kind of faculty an institution hires. In our case, the vast majority of our professors are practitioners. Not surprisingly our faculty are often rushing in to teach a class after work, just as the students are rushing in after work. Consequently the faculty resonates with the complex lives of the students. The faculty members are juggling work and teaching while the students are juggling work and learning. Faculty must fundamentally understand and respect the students they teach. Faculty who are practitioners fundamentally have credibility with non-traditional learners because they are doing the work on a daily basis.
5. “The college is concerned about the whole me.”
In addition to having outstanding faculty the full range of student support services is critical. Many non-traditional students have significant financial and non-academic needs. Increasingly it is important to provide not only academic tutoring, but life coaching, financial advising, resources to assist with domestic violence, child care, addictions, homelessness, to name a few. In addition to a full range of academic and tutoring support we have added a community support outreach coordinator to our menu of offerings.
6. “Classes are small and intimate.”
Small class sizes definitely puts a financial strain on the institution however, student retention and student success has a significant positive impact on the bottom line.
7. “The flexibility of classroom times that really worked for my busy schedule, weekend intensives as well as evening classes.”
Serving non-traditional learners typically means that students are working and classes need to be available when students can attend class. We are however also noticing that in some cases students work in the evening and weekends and are increasingly exploring expanding the range of offerings. It is important to recognize the needs of your particular students and one size does not fit all.
8. “The opportunity to just check it out by taking one class meant I didn’t have to make too big of a commitment at first.”
It is important for institutions to realize that not all students are ready or interested in immediately becoming a fully matriculated student. This does not mean that at some point they won’t take a full certificate or degree program. Allowing and in fact encouraging prospective students to take once course as a sample can be a highly effective marketing strategy for some students.
9. “I kept driving by the college sign on my way home from work until one day I finally came in.”
The location factor really touches upon the importance of understanding your audience and knowing where they live and commute. When recruiting non-traditional students location and proximity to their home or workplace are critical and can be deciding factors. An institution committed to access for non-traditional learners really needs to take seriously the very pragmatic issues of their physical location as well as access in terms of public transportation and parking. In view of the fact that late night classes are often a given, it is important to also think about issues as basic as safety and security of students when they leave class at night.
The list is by no means exhaustive but rather provides a starting point for institutions that are serious about serving the non-traditional learner successfully. Reflecting on the list as well as our strategies reveals that in order to be successful there must be both an understanding of the student population as well as an intentionality in meeting the student exactly where they are at, not at trying to fit the student into a pre-existing mold or template.
Author Perspective: Administrator