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It Takes More than Convenient Hours: Working with Highly Non-Traditional Students (Part 1)

Co-Written with Emilia Diamant | Executive Director, Jeremiah-Endicott Program and Marcelo Juica | Director, Endicott College-Boston

The EvoLLLution | It Takes More than Convenient Hours: Working with Highly Non-Traditional Students (Part 1)
While many higher education leaders recognize the need to serve the non-traditional audience, few institutions go beyond modifying traditional models to suit this demographic.

A recent federal study estimates that as many as 73 percent of all college students in the United States are defined as non-traditional. But what does this really mean? Finding a unified definition of non-traditional students might be impossible, and likely not helpful as these students’ needs and attributes are so diverse and their lives often very complicated—but in unique ways.

In a 1996 report, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) helpfully introduced a scale of non-traditional characteristics:

  • Age
  • GED/HiSet vs high school diploma
  • First generation in college
  • Underserved minority
  • Students with children or dependents
  • Full-time work while in college
  • New immigrants in American education
  • English Language learners
  • Non-campus residents
  • Low income and living in poverty

For students who might have only one or two non-traditional characteristics, there seem to be a lot of college programs available to help them succeed.  Students who possess three or more of these characteristics, however, are more challenging for institutions to serve well. And the success rates— whether retention or graduation rates—are much lower.

With first-year retention rates for “non-traditional learners” typically below 50 percent, there are clearly areas that need more national attention and institutional support. Specifically, we need a better understanding of our students—what their lives are like, how school fits into those scenarios, and what they AND institutions can do to help. Offering a traditional college model and traditional support services in varied time-slots or online are not complete solutions. Institutions and programs need to be more intentional.

In 2013 Endicott College started classes and programming at a new academic center in downtown Boston. The mission of the new pilot project, Endicott College Boston, was to learn from and help non-traditional students be more successful in higher education. When we saw that our incoming cohort was nearly 40 percent parents, we knew that we were going to need more specific kinds of support. In September 2013, the college formed a partnership with Jeremiah Program, a Minneapolis-based non-profit whose mission is to help single parents and their children transition from poverty to prosperity two generations at a time. College is hard enough to navigate for single, busy non-traditional students. While this partnership was intended to be a support model for the students who were parents, it ended up teaching us important things all of our students can use.

A typical Endicott Boston student might be a first-generation, underserved minority and new immigrant adolescent for whom English is a second (or third) language. The student also might have at least one child. We have no campus housing, so all of our students are commuters. In the last three academic years, we have learned about the obstacles that non-traditional students face and, along with our Jeremiah Program partner, we’ve built a model that is—although in its early stage—showing great promise in helping students be more successful.

Here are some of our lessons from our “non-traditional program for non-traditional learners”:

1. Students are members of communities and families, and those circles of community need to be engaged.

Too often for “pioneer” college goers, there are few people in their lives outside of the college walls who understand the full commitment college classes require. And too often institutions are blind to the either/or dilemma that students are forced to make when not at school. We have tried to soften this for students by inviting family in. When a mother, for example, needs to do homework their child will often sit and do “homework” with them. The monthly family/social events, organized by Jeremiah Program or Endicott College, help the parenting students build social capital with others who struggle with same life/school challenges.

This sort of community and social capital building is also evident in some of our non-parenting, but still very non-traditional, communities. One cohort of English language learners who have taken classes as an informal cohort for the last year have started showing up early to their night classes, bringing food and supporting each other in the life/school balance.

2. The scale of non-traditional programs needs to be small.

We know all of our students by name. A pilot program is unique in this way, typically small enough where this sort of personal attention is possible. When someone misses class or a coaching session because a child is sick, the language is specific: “Jaden is not allowed in the early childhood center today because he is sick. Because of that I have to stay home with him and I’ll miss my English class.” Using names ensures that the student parent knows that we understand hard choices. As Endicott Boston grows from 150 students to something larger, say 250 in the coming year, being able to maintain that level of connection will be harder. To do that, we will have appointed staff members to act as the lookout for each cohort. Jeremiah Program will stay intentionally even smaller. That cohort will stay at 30 student parents so each student will be known—not just academically but also for their growth and development outside of college.

As a new academic community we also get to more easily establish social norms. The social norm, right now, is that everyone says hello to everyone else. There is an intentional idea at work: We want to be welcoming and supportive to every member of our community. This kind of connection can help mitigate the strong fight or flight response that might surface when a course gets challenging or when a student falls a little behind.

This is the first installment in a two-part series by Brian Pellinen, Emilia Diamant and Marcelo Juica outlining how Endicott College Boston has shaped itself, with the help of the Jeremiah Program, to create an engaging environment for non-traditional students focused on supporting their success. Please come back next week for the conclusion, where they will share their final three insights.

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