Published on 2018/02/20
The EvoLLLution | Supporting Non-Traditional and Lower-Income Students
By consciously and intentionally focusing attention on the success of non-traditional and low-income learners, postsecondary institutions can drive completion among this segment while also supporting the success of all students on campus.
Years ago, I was a full-time non-traditional student with three children. As such, I have a special affinity for working adults pursuing a college degree. Balancing work, family, community and other obligations while going to school full or part-time is daunting. My sister, who just turned 50, decided to return to school last year and complete a degree. She faced some of the same issues I did years ago, but found great support in her journey, support that was not available when I was a full-time non-traditional student.

For a non-traditional student, time and money matter most. I needed a flexible schedule with class availability on evenings and weekends back then, while in today’s world my sister was looking for hybrid/blended courses to provide her with flexibility, allowing her to stay on track for completing a degree while working. She also has access to fully online courses in her program, and while enrolling in them was a tentative step for her, she took the plunge. The availability of online student support services with live people she could turn to for help was critical in her decision to return to school and enroll in online courses. Also, my sister received 12 credits from a prior learning assessment process. For her, credit for prior learning was a full semester of tuition savings and a factor in her final decision to enroll. This was similar to the 12 credits I received through CLEP when entering college after serving in the military, which was also a factor for me in deciding to enter college.

While flexibility and cost were critical considerations for my sister and me, the final decision to entering college in both cases still centered around meeting with campus staff and getting acquainted with people who helped us work through the maze of requirements to get admitted, register for classes, secure financial aid, and then receive face-to-face support as we worked our way through school. Even with online and hybrid/blended courses, human contact along with bricks and mortar were as important to my sister now as it was to me years ago.

I don’t believe it is any different for low-income students. Many of those students are first-generation students who must navigate the application, admissions, financial aid and registration processes just as non-traditional students do, often without the work experience and maturity of later adulthood or guidance from family members. As a result, the university must provide a carefully scripted, high-touch process to help low income and non-traditional students understand the university environment and successfully navigate it before and after admission. At USF St Petersburg, we have always had multiple touch points for students interested in attending USFSP. Open houses, orientations, special sessions on financial aid, early connections to an academic adviser, an early start day for new students, etc. have generally helped students get on the road to success, but we needed to do more. Retention and completion rates were not where we wanted them, especially for non-traditional and lower-income students. Two years ago we launched several major initiatives:

  1. Reorganization of our Student Enrollment Management Team, adding representation from across the university and integrating work groups on data analytics and the student experience into the team. The SEM is the university oversight group dedicated to all initiatives that support student success, including making recommendations to cabinet about new initiatives and changes needed to support students. It meets weekly and is co-chaired by two vice-chancellors.
  2. Implementation of an electronic registration system and a student success case management system that integrates daily information for every student, providing faculty and staff with an opportunity to reach out early to students who may be experiencing difficulties, and providing us with predictive analytics to help tailor services to individual students.
  3. A task force to reduce the costs of textbooks and provide short-term financial help for students who have financial holds on their registration.
  4. The addition of three mental health professionals and two retention/completion specialists to work with academic advising and college staff to ensure that every student feels connected to someone at the university, are kept aware of their progress and next steps along their journey to completion, are connected to support services as needed, and are provided with short-term financial assistance when needed.
  5. Implementation of learning communities in residential life, expansion of campus engagement activities, and expansion of internship and part-time employment opportunities connected to academic learning.
  6. Creation of additional online courses and hybrid/blended courses where needed.

We are in discussion now about creating a Center for Community Partnership and Adult Learning, which we feel is needed to provide working adults a pathway back to college along with professional development opportunities moving forward. We are also designing an integrated summer bridge program for second and third summers, connecting our first-year experience programming and creating a seamless four-year experience.

As a result of changes made in the past two years, we have seen more than a ten percentage-point increase in our fall-to-fall retention rates for all students, regardless of race, income or age. We believe that our efforts will impact all students, but will also provide high-touch, flexible, and affordable approaches needed by non-traditional and lower-income students.

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