Published on 2014/05/14

Flexibility and Understanding Critical for Non-Traditional Students

Flexibility and Understanding Critical for Non-Traditional Students
Non-traditional students are interested in the more traditional programs universities offer as well as career-focused programs, requiring institutions to adapt to meet their unique needs.
In the past few years, the purpose of higher education has typically been defined by its economic and workforce outcomes. It’s seen as the best way to produce leaders, critical thinkers and entrepreneurs; it’s a way for the United States to remain competitive on a global scale. Attending university is how young adults become more open-minded, by taking humanities classes and interacting with others who have different backgrounds and beliefs. Higher education has also helped droves of unemployed non-traditional students, hit hard by the economic downturn, change ­­careers.

But that is a narrowly-focused story that suggests higher education only serves the practical purpose of helping graduates forge a career trajectory. The National Center for Education Statistics estimates that non-traditional students now make up more than 60 percent of the higher education population, and it seems likely these students return to school for a wide range of reasons.

Many people are lifelong learners looking to pursue their interests, take foreign language courses or earn multiple degrees. Higher education allows for growth, curiosity, adaptation to change, contribution to society in new ways and self-fulfillment — no matter what the age.

Higher education is a great way to stay young, and a great way to participate in an increasingly digital-dependent, technology-savvy society. It’s good to keep one’s mind agile and the synapses firing.

The more I learn, the more I believe I’m capable of achieving whatever goal I set for myself. Higher education is what each individual makes of it. For myself, I found what I was passionate about at this stage in my life. I thought my beliefs were fairly set at this point in life, but some of my experiences in the classroom, hearing other stories, have changed my mind about ideas I previously thought I understood and reminded me of the things I truly care about.

It’s time to acknowledge that the traditional student is no longer the majority. Today’s diverse students require a new model, full degree programs with varied requirements that are better suited to the current population of students. This requires a shift in the way university bureaucracies determine prerequisites and mandatory program components. For instance, during undergraduate years, I was in a global affairs program that required four semesters of a foreign language and a study abroad semester. While I enjoyed those aspects of my program, those requirements were frustrating and at times difficult for other non-traditional students. Departments should make it easier for students to test out of language requirements if they are fluent in several languages. Also, many non-traditional students have experienced either work or travel abroad and, for those with family or work commitments, there should be allowances made to count previous experiences on their own merit or by having students submit an essay about those experiences.

Universities should consider relevant work experience that pertains to a program and bypass core class material individuals have practical experience with; it’s a waste of time and money to repeat what’s already been learned. Moreover, universities should allow students in the lifelong learner category, who are not pursuing a degree, more access to courses not available at community colleges.

Universities need to identify and better understand their student demographic. It’s time to make programs flexible in order to better serve this diverse population of students.

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Readers Comments

Q Carleton 2014/05/14 at 2:02 pm

I see the overall value in flexible programming, but let me play devil’s advocate for a minute. If non-traditional students can just use their prior experiences to opt out of many experiences offered by the institution, what’s the point of them enrolling in the first place? Postsecondary programs are put together with care and thought, and all of the elements are designed to enhance a student’s learning. As much as possible, non-traditional students should follow the prescribed program. I understand that it’s important to be able to test out of language requirements if you clearly know the language, but saying your business trip to Shanghai should take the place of a study abroad opportunity is totally different. Better distinction needs to be made between opportunities that are unique to the higher ed experience and ones that aren’t, and only the ones that aren’t should have an opt-out option.

    Eric Csergo 2014/05/15 at 11:10 am

    I think you’re being a bit idealistic. Of course, in an ideal scenario, all non-traditional students would be able to follow the same program as traditional students. In reality, however, it can be difficult for a working mom to study abroad for a term, regardless of how much she wants to do it. The goal of flexible programming is, I think, to respond as best as possible to individual needs. In the example of the working mom, being able to use family vacation time to make up some of the program requirements — provided she writes about it and connects the travel to the learning objectives — would satisfy both her needs and the program’s. It’s the best-case scenario for a tough situation.

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