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The Non-Traditional Point of View: Exploring Students’ Perspectives and Experiences

The EvoLLLution | The Non-Traditional Point of View: Exploring Students’ Perspectives and Experiences
Non-traditional students are the fastest-growing population of learners enrolling at colleges and universities today, and that trend is only going to accelerate. But how much do we really know about this demographic?

If you’re looking for statistics on non-traditional college students, the world is your oyster. Today’s fastest-growing college population is also the most obsessively studied. And that’s fair enough—after all, the stat that has really stuck with me is from the CLASP Center for Postsecondary and Economic Success: non-traditional student enrollment is projected to increase more than twice as fast as traditional student enrollment from 2012 to 2022. It’s potentially the most important and impactful admissions trend of the decade.

Of course, if you really want to understand these students and what they need, you have to cut through the clutter and hear directly from them.

At Barnes & Noble College, we have the good fortune to work, live, study and play on campus alongside students every day. When we want to know what they’re thinking and how they’re feeling, we just ask. We recently conducted a national survey of more than 1,000 traditional students and nearly 800 non-traditional students to gain more insight into their experiences and perspectives and how their college journey is different.

Here are some of the insights they shared with us:

1. Money is the number-one challenge non-traditional students face

Financial concerns are common among many college students, but non-traditional students are really feeling the heat as they balance the cost of school with the cost of other life responsibilities, such as mortgages and families. Only 15 percent of non-traditional students feel financially secure. Finances impact every step of their academic journey, from choosing a school to how they allocate their time once they’re there. More than half of non-traditional students told us that finances impacted how much time they dedicated to their schoolwork, whether or not they could get textbooks and how many credit hours they could take. Not surprisingly, finances also represented the top reason students gave for having to drop out of a previous program.

Top takeaway: Financial assistance is more important than ever for non-traditional students. It’s their most popular request for additional support from their schools.

2. Non-traditional students are digital explorers

This group is not afraid to create their own classroom. In fact, 69 percent of non-traditional students said that the ability to take online courses is important to them—and 60 percent have already taken at least one. After that, they’re twice as likely to prefer online courses as traditional students. Why? Factors like convenience, transportation and comfort make online learning an appealing option. The trend doesn’t stop there: The majority of non-traditional students also prefer OER, adaptive learning materials and collaborative learning materials equally to or even more than print materials. With these tools, they can structure their experience however they like, but they can still be part of a group dynamic when they want.

Top takeaway: For non-traditional students balancing school, work, family and other responsibilities, flexibility and individualized support are a significant need, and digital learning options can help.

3. Many non-traditional students feel out of touch with their school and their fellow students

Non-traditional students may appreciate the convenience of online courses and resources, but human connections will always be important. Unfortunately, that’s a pain point for many of them. Just 44 percent of non-traditional students feel connected to their school, and only 20 percent feel socially connected. Less than one-third feels like they belong. And, non-traditional students are much less likely to feel supported by their peers or that they have friends at school, when compared to traditional students.

Top takeaway: It may take a little logistical creativity, but creating events and activities tailored to non-traditional students can help spark social connections and build valuable relationships.

4. In better shape, on the other hand, are non-traditional students’ relationships with faculty

Non-traditional students value the role professors and advisors play in their academic lives—and I can tell you from previous research conducted with faculty that the feeling is mutual. The good news is that this is one area of campus life working well for non-traditional students. In fact, 71 percent say that they have good relationships with their professors, and 69 percent have good relationships with their advisors. Given less time on campus and frequently tight schedules, it’s no surprise that accessibility and responsiveness resonated with non-traditional students—88 percent said these factors are important.

Top takeaway: The reality is that time and resources are limited for professors, advisors and students alike. Anything that schools can do to make it easier for everyone to stay connected is valuable.

5. Challenges aside, non-traditional students look at the big picture and have good things to say

Many non-traditional students are keeping their eyes on the prize. Eighty-nine percent consider college to be moderately or very valuable. Seventy-eight percent feel positively about their current situation at school. And, more than half describe themselves as academically successful, motivated and optimistic. Getting a degree is not easy today—there are a lot of financial, academic and social complications that can arise. But, you’ll find a lot of non-traditional students out there who are fiercely determined, resilient and focused on the future. As one of our non-traditional juniors said, “Education is the one thing people can’t take away from me. If I have that, my possibilities are endless.

If you’d like to take a deeper dive, our full report, Achieving Success for Non-traditional Students, is available for download. This is only the first conversation we’re having with non-traditional students, so stay tuned for more insights to come from Barnes & Noble College Insights℠.

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