Visit Modern Campus

The Students are Not What They Were, and Higher Education Must Change to Keep Up

Non-traditional, adult students are becoming increasing common on college and universities today, both on-campus and online. In 2011, only 15 percent of students could be considered traditional residential students; attending a four-year college and living on campus. Of all students enrolled in higher education last year, 37 percent were enrolled part time, 32 percent worked full-time and more than a third were older than 25 years old.

Yesterday’s “non-traditional” is today’s “new-traditional”.

To respond to this massive change in demographics, colleges and universities must adjust to meet the needs of today’s learners. Last week in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Rob Jenkins—the author of Building a Career in America’s Community Colleges and monthly Chronicle blogger—suggested a few changes higher education institutions could make.

First, he recommended that colleges and universities recognize the special needs of this student demographic. This includes being able to respond to a student’s fear of ‘school’ after being out of the classroom for any number of years. Additionally, many non-traditional students have a number of personal constraints on their time, from family concerns to full-time employment, that 18-22 year olds do not have to deal with.

Jenkins warns that many non-traditional students will be busy, may have eroded study skills, may have forgotten much of what they learned previously and may very well be unfamiliar with new technologies.

These issues inform his second suggestion, which is that educators design courses with these challenges in mind. Rules that are designed to keep an 18-year-old from skipping class may be Draconian when applied to a father of three who had to take their child to the hospital. Penalizing non-traditional students for lateness or absenteeism is simply unfair given the demands on their time.

Additionally, educators should work in remedial coursework to help non-traditional students adjust to college-level coursework and help provide them the base they will need to succeed in the classroom. Finally, by using online mediums to post course material, educators can help keep costs down for this student group who are typically stretching financially simply to attend college in the first place.

Third, Jenkins recommends that educators make an effort to connect their course material to real-world relevance. This will help keep students engaged and will help non-traditional learners see the cost of their education as a worthwhile investment. This does not just go for curriculum material; assignments can be designed in such a way as to promote the development of real-world skills like teamwork and communication.

Finally, Jenkins suggests that educators go above and beyond to ensure their non-traditional students feel welcome in the college environment. After all, when comfortable, a non-traditional student can enrich a classroom with wisdom, experience and knowledge that leads to a better learning environment for everyone.