The Five A’s of Engaging Non-Traditional Students
Today most colleges and universities have non-traditional students as part of their enrollment. If maximizing an institution’s engagement with this group were as simple as offering a few new resources, altering delivery styles, or acknowledging the existence of said population, then the discussion about how best to serve this demographic would be a short one. I could simply list five programs or adaptations that a generalized group of non-traditional students might seek and call it a day.
- Available childcare and resources
- One-on-one face time with instructors in online learning programs
- A book exchange program where students could share books to lessen costs
- A peer mentoring program that would connect graduating non-traditional students with incoming students to offer advice and lessons learned
- Individualized success counselors who help monitor personal, professional and academic responsibilities
There you have it, problem fixed.
All joking aside, most students and faculty recognize that connecting the complexities of non-traditional student lives with the rigid institutions of learning is a more complex task than I gave it credit for. To help, I offer my perspective on opportunities that exist to maximize the effectiveness of institutional efforts to connect with non-traditional students.
Through the lens of a management graduate working in the public sector, I see higher education as a business or service. This places students in the role of customers. Now I know that many of you are thinking that students should never be thought of as customers based on academic principles, and perhaps you are right. For the sake of trying to improve, let us save that debate a different day. So if universities are businesses, it becomes their responsibility to better meet their customers’ needs.
For the conversation of engaging non-traditional students specifically, I believe in utilizing a continuous improvement inspired construct to address the root causes of disconnect. I call them The Five A’s of Successful Non-Traditional Student Integration.
So you have non-traditional students, but what does that mean? Are they laid-off workers, are they single mothers, are they military veterans? Do they fit into multiple categories or none of the above?
The first change that colleges and universities need to make is to realize you can’t simply lump people into a category, name it, and then engage it. Instead, they need to be understood as individuals that make up part of the larger group. Higher education specializes in collecting and analyzing data and in most cases they already collect the information they need, and they are simply failing to utilize it. Think of the ways supportive programs might differ if ninety percent of your non-traditional students are war veterans or single mothers. Institutions need to analyze and monitor their student population in order to most effectively meet their needs.
If you fail to analyze your students then chances are you are going to fail to make available necessary services to your students. If you assume that all non-traditional students are planning to enter the workforce the moment they graduate you may focus all of your resources on creating workforce development programs and miss the opportunity that might exist if a significant percentage are actually planning to continue their to education in graduate programs. If you go through the process of analyzing your students, then the next step must be to utilize your analysis and make available programs and resources that tailor to your specific non-traditional student’s needs.
So your analysis exposes the fact that you have a particularly high percentage of single parents in your population. You recognize the opportunity for better meeting their needs so you decide to make available a daycare program. You prepare a facility perfect for this endeavor and you open up to all students with children. You make your hours of operation 8 am to 5 pm just like all other university offices. However, you failed to consider that 98% of your single-parent students are taking their classes between 5:00 pm and 10:00 pm. You have just created a wonderful program based on the needs of your students, but you failed to make it accessible to them. If you are planning to make programs available for your non-traditional students, then you need to make sure that the targeted group of people is going to have access to it when they need it. The same rules apply to the location, admission standards, and reliability of any services you create.
All of the planning, organizational design, and good intentions will not mean anything if the program is not affordable to a non-traditional student. One thing that most non-traditional students do have in common is a lack of financial resources. Many are living on fixed incomes and have little to no outside financial support. Programs cost money and it is unrealistic to expect most services to be free. However, many other programs can keep these types of supportive programs affordable by targeting sustainability and maximizing their efficiency through utilizing the other four “A’s.”
One of the most logical “A’s”, adaptability, is often one of the most difficult to consistently perform. We are creatures of habit. We find something that works, we get comfortable, and we stop looking for ways to improve. If you don’t believe me go read Who Moved My Cheese. This “5-A” process is dependent on continuous analysis, agility and improvement. The next school year might show an uptick in economic conditions and all of a sudden all the laid-off workers have gone back to work and are left with an entirely new population. It is critical that colleges and universities continuously adapt to the changing environment. It does not seem realistic to accept that a university should be able to adjust their non-traditional support programs overnight. However consistent, careful monitoring will allow organizations to see trends and help prepare for upcoming changes.
Author Perspective: Association