Call Them What They Are: The New Contemporary Student
Higher education uses labels. They provide an efficient way to count, categorize and communicate. Among the things we label are students. We label students based on the number of credits they have completed (freshman, sophomore, etc.), the level of support a student needs (at-risk, honors, first-generation, remedial, etc.), the type of support system we have in place (TRiO, La Familia, Men of Color, etc.), the problematic notion of generational differences (matures, boomers, gen x, millennials, etc.) and, more recently, we extensively use the labels “traditional” versus “non-traditional/post-traditional” students.
But are labels useful, and are we using the right labels?
In some ways labels are helpful in planning programs, services, class schedules and budgets. There is, however, a sometimes unintended outcome in using labels. For example, when we think about an individual student we tend to form one image for a boomer and another for a millennial. We make assumptions about students based on the labels we’ve assigned them, and assumptions are often incorrect and misleading. This is especially true for those students we’ve labeled “non-traditional/post-traditional,” and why we need to re-image our definition of this demographic and refer to them as contemporary students.
Statistical data demonstrates the number of traditional or classic students is diminishing, and up to 73 percent of students are what higher education categorizes as non-traditional/post-traditional in at least one element, varying from the need to work, the need for child care, the desire for online or accelerated classes, the age at which they first matriculate, to other non-traditional/post-traditional aspects. Many institutions are well able to serve this growing demographic, but continue to define them as NOT traditional. This is much like referring to students over the age of 20 as “non-teenage” students. At one time the students described truly were non-traditional—which is to say, not like the traditional students on campus—but today the student demographic has changed dramatically and there is little value in retaining the non-traditional/post-traditional label. These are our students. This is who we are serving. Calling them by a label that marginalizes their majority status in our institutions can be harmful to them and cause us to treat them as outside the norm, which they no longer are.
In reality, the traditional or classic student has all but disappeared in most institutions of higher education. Even 18-year old students who attend college directly from high school have very different demographics—more of them are working and enrolling part-time—and expectations. For example, contemporary students expect faculty to provide coursework in flipped or virtual classrooms. They expect podcasts and taped lectures. They expect institutions to have mobile apps that address all student needs, including online classes. These students have always participated in designing their learning, and they expect to continue to do this. While in the past, a classic student might live in a dorm and appreciate a salad bar and climbing wall, the quality of technological support an institution provides, as well as relevant and current curriculum and pedagogy, will determine enrollment and retention of contemporary students. With the changing demographic of our students, there is an increased need for programs, courses, and services preferred by contemporary students, such as online and/or hybrid courses, virtual support services, accelerated programs, credit for prior learning or testing options, stackable certificates, and programs the lead to careers.[2, 3]
The continual labeling of students into the categories of traditional (often seen as the typical or average student) and non-traditional/post-traditional hinders academic strategic planning and could ultimately negatively affect students. Labeling limits and shapes our thinking regarding who our students are, how they will act, and what they seek from a degree. Any label that defines people as “not-them” creates an implicit bias that there is a strong inner group, and a more difficult or lesser-than outer group. In the case of non-traditional/post-traditional students, our assumptions incorrectly inform institutional decisions.
We tend to assume that traditional students are all the same and all want day-based classroom courses and contemporary students want evening or online courses only. We assume our students all have the same desires based on their generation, an assumption that is consistently challenged by developmental psychologists. We assume traditional students want careers in math and science, but non-traditional/post-traditional students just want to complete a degree towards a career. We even assume students who earned an AAS degree in a community college and are working will never want to earn a master’s degree. In fact, it is sometimes this non-traditional/post-traditional label that causes four- and six-year institutions to devalue the academic strength of AA/AS/AAS degrees from community colleges.
The assumptions generated by the use of the label of non-traditional/post traditional are expressed through academic planning and design. Many institutions segregate student enrollment based on these labels. Accelerated or online courses are considered less academically challenging, or of a lower quality. In some cases faculty are segregated by the generation of students they serve. Others falsely assume non-traditional/post-traditional students are “at-risk” (another label which marginalizes) and make planning decisions based on that assumption.
In the College of Contemporary Liberal studies at Regis University in Denver, we are flipping these assumptions. Our first step was to change the label. We now refer to our students, our pedagogy, and our Liberal Studies content as contemporary. We understand the contemporary student wants a degree to be earned quickly, to be of high quality, to be affordable, to be convenient and relevant. The change in language changed our curricular planning, faculty and student expectations, and our view of student support. This shift has allowed us to ask new questions. For example:
- How has the design of 16-week, day-based lab courses excluded many students from science degrees?
- Why do we understand the writing of an 18-year-old student will improve over the course of a college experience, but we penalize contemporary students for not have higher level writing skills?
- Why do we envision international experiences as requiring students to spend a semester overseas, which immediately eliminates many contemporary students, rather than helping students find international connections in their home communities?
In a similar light, we define service learning as an activity a student performs within a course in a marginalized community. We have found that meeting the contemporary student where they are reveals current community connections that we do not always consider. In doing this work we have found it is not the student who needs to change, it is us.
As our institution embraces the notion of the Contemporary student we are shifting our thinking away from long lectures to flipped classrooms. Our scheduling now includes “4th-row classrooms” so students can be at home and participate in a course live and in real time. We stopped the over-use of the research paper in every course and began to experiment with a variety of assessments, including portfolios and creative assignments. We have infused art into speech, freshman writing, and contemporary math courses. Further, we have included students on course design teams to assure the work is relevant and current. This inclusion model creates a deeper student investment in the courses.
Finally, we have changed our language, treating contemporary students as partners in their academic experience. We moved from courses in “student success” to psychology courses around “encountering the journey.” We shifted from “driving students to advisors” to invitational learning. We acknowledged students want clear, seamless pathways, and institutional processes are often self-imposed and complicated, without serving a purpose. With this perspective we stopped asking about scalability and started focusing on elegant and intentional design.
Changing the non-traditional/post-traditional label to contemporary clearly does not solve all the issues higher education faces when dealing with the new contemporary student. The shift in language, however, does shift our thinking. Shifting our thinking shifts our assumptions and behaviors. These are the students we need to serve. They are not the students of the 1950s or even the 2000s. They are many. They are wonderful and driven and full of hopes and dreams. It is our job to stop seeing them as different, and to start creating the academic environments they need, not the academic environments that mirror the past.
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 Choy, S. (2002, August). Nontraditional Undergraduates: Findings from the Condition of Education 2002. Retreived February 1, 2017 from https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2002/2002012.pdf.
 Hyams, A. (2015, November 09). The Importance of Stackable Certificates. Retrieved January 31, 2017, from https://evolllution.com/opinions/audio-the-importance-of-stackable-certificates/
 Ross-Gordon, B. M. (2015, January 05). Research on Adult Learners: Supporting the Needs of a Student Population that Is No Longer Nontraditional. Retrieved January 31, 2017, from https://www.aacu.org/publications-research/periodicals/research-adult-learners-supporting-needs-student-population-no
 Kriegel, J. (2016). Unfairly labeled: how your workplace can benefit from ditching generational stereotypes. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
 Held, S. (2011, February 17). Virtual Classroom. Retrieved January 27, 2017, from http://www.nwibq.com/technology/virtual-classroom/
Author Perspective: Administrator