Five Essential Mechanisms for Supporting Non-Traditional Student SuccessTodd McCullough | President, Adults Belong in College
I never expected to be a non-traditional student. In fact, I was quite content in my daily ritual of going to a well-paying job that supported my family’s needs. That all changed the day the large facility I worked at closed its doors and I found myself facing a stark reality: I would either have to start over completely or I could re-invest myself into my education.
I was quick to realize that returning to school as a non-traditional student is much more difficult than I could have imagined.
I recall an early class in which we were using a standard graphing calculator. I remember looking at this device and thinking that this must be what it’s like to stare into the cockpit of a space craft. What was even more disheartening was when my professor explained we wouldn’t be taking any time to review the use of this space-aged device because we “all should have used these last year in high school.”
From that moment on, I knew I wasn’t going to get through college alone, so I began the process of developing my support network. I became passionate about supporting other non-traditional students and was asked to become president of Adults Belong in College, a non-traditional student support organization on my campus. With this leadership role, I’ve been privileged to learn five essential mechanisms to creating successful non-traditional students.
1. Financial Aid Specialists Non-traditional students often face different financial situations than typical students. Higher learning institutions need to recognize and embrace this as an opportunity to assist non-traditional students in their planning. At my institution, our financial aid officer isn’t specifically focused on non-traditional students; however, she has always been willing to step out of her traditional role to help me find the best solutions for me and my family.
2. Transition Advisors A transition advisor is concerned with the successful acclimation of the student to the campus. This advisor should have a solid understanding of the types of responsibilities the non-traditional student has and should act as a mentor in the entire education process from entry to graduation. The transition advisor will help the student schedule classes and understand the constraints of the non-traditional lifestyle in order to help the student develop tangible goals.
3. Supportive Student Organizations Most non-traditional students have a difficult time envisioning themselves participating in student organizations. Yet, those who do will find themselves making critical connections to resources, social support and the campus experience. Many non-traditional student organizations focus on finding ways to provide support for other non-traditional students by sponsoring book exchange programs, creating babysitting networks and hosting informative sessions that help non-traditional students gain important tools for navigating the college experience.
4. Counselors In the three years of my non-traditional college experience, I had peers who dealt with a variety of issues including: divorce, complications with children, bankruptcy, death (spouses, friends, parents and children), drug and alcohol addiction, stress-related illness, domestic violence, lack of supportive environments, foreclosure and loss of employment. In my experience, if you put a counselor in place and make it easy for non-traditional students to use his or her services, they will take advantage of that opportunity and be better off as a result.
5. An Atmosphere of Inclusion The make-up of an institution will likely dictate the ratio of non-traditional students. On my campus, estimates suggest approximately 60 percent of our students would fit the non-traditional category. Yet many of my fellow non-traditional students feel as though they are foreigners. I have worked on various projects that bring attention to non-traditional students to show the campus that not only do they exist, but they are here in large numbers. Through events such as a “veteran and active military student appreciation night,” a “family pumpkin carving evening” and a “family fair day,” which will, among other things, allow students and their families to take a tour of the school so parents can show their children their classrooms. Having a campus that allows non-traditional students the opportunity to make a connection between their families and their education can make a significant impact on those who struggle with that balance.
Today, more adults are returning to the classroom. Whether they are there for lifelong learning or to begin from scratch, it is imperative that institutions embrace these non-traditional students as a part of the learning environment. These five mechanisms will go a long way in creating success stories out of non-traditional students.
Author Perspective: Student
Transitional advisors play a very important role in the lives of adult or non-traditional students, and it is vital that they are trained specifically to advise this group. The transition to postsecondary education is usually mirrored by some major transition in the adult student’s life (e.g. job transfer/loss, changes in family life, etc.) Advisors need to know how to recognize and adapt to this in order to provide the best support and guidance for the adult student.
I agree that an atmosphere of inclusion is one of the key elements of supporting non-traditional students. Institutions are increasingly careful to consider non-traditional students’ needs in their programming (e.g. course scheduling, different delivery formats). While this has made it easier to be simultaneously a parent and/or full-time worker and student, these changes haven’t necessarily been focused on enhancing students’ out-of-classroom experiences. Research consistently shows that all types of students learn best when they feel they are in a supportive and safe environment — both inside and outside the classroom. I don’t think we’ve quite reached that point yet for non-traditional students, but institutions need to start having this conversation if they want to see adult students achieve high levels of success.