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For Better Or For Worse, Till Death Do Us Part: Non-Traditional Retention And Higher Education

For Better Or For Worse, Till Death Do Us Part: Non-Traditional Retention And Higher Education
Higher education institutions enter into a marriage of sorts with non-traditional students, and must support their new partner for either party to truly succeed. Photo by Robbie van Dalen.

When you marry the love of your life you can expect support and encouragement from your significant other when trials and tribulation come your way. Higher learning institutions should practice that same concept for nontraditional students.

There are relationships being made by the nontraditional students with his or her fellow classmates, professors, and academic administrators. Similar to a commitment in a marriage, student retention is brought on by the commitment of the students to the institution, as well as the commitment of the institution to the student.

According to ACT, 2010 National Survey: What Works In Student Retention study, “Respondents from all colleges in the study reported retention practices responsible for the greatest contribution to retention fell into three main categories: 1. First Year Programs, 2. Academic Advising, and 3. Learning Support”.

On the other hand, if any of these practices are put into play the administration must understand the kind of student he or she is attending too. Nontraditional students differ from traditional students in that nontraditional students have responsibilities for school in addition to responsibilities of their own personal lives. For example, non-traditional students usually have a full time job, have children to look after or an elderly parent, and more of the life’s typical obstacles.

Therefore, student retention is based on more than the kind of classes in the first year, or academic advising, or the learning support the institution offers. Retention is also based on the institution understanding the lives of its students. I can attest to these practices based on my own experiences.

“Nontraditional students have many life responsibilities. Some things in life are out of their control,” said Academic Advisor Meg Barefoot from Duquesne University’s School of Leadership Administration. “We try to help our nontraditional students overcome barriers.”

An example of ways to accomplish this goal is by assisting nontraditional students with registration for classes. Traditional students at Duquesne University are responsible for registering themselves for their classes but a nontraditional student has that necessary guidance and relief for registering important classes. The classes for a nontraditional student at Duquesne University are on Saturdays. This is commendable because of the work and family responsibilities that take up the average non-traditional student’s weekday schedule. Students across the board understand the value of course scheduling when it comes to staying at an institution.

“I feel that a majority of non-traditional students work a typical Monday through Friday daylight job,” said Jen Settings, my classmate. “Offering a variety of classes on campus on Saturdays is an appealing way to retain students. By holding class sessions on Saturdays, it still allows the student to have that face-to-face interaction which I find extremely valuable in any learning environment without adding to their already filled Monday-Friday workday… The best practice would be sure to offer a variety of face-to-face on campus courses.”

To reaffirm ACT’s survey, Meg Barefoot suggests a way to retain student interest is by helping to manage the nontraditional students’ course load. For example, if a student needs a writing class, Meg would spread out the students’ schedule instead of adding all four required writing classes in the same year.

“One of our goals is to think about, ‘What will help our students to keep coming back?’,”  Ms. Barefoot said.

Since this is part of Duquesne University’s goals, my first class was an Adult Transition Seminar (ATS); its main purpose was to wean nontraditional students into academic writing and expose us to other students with the same life priorities. From having a graceful experience in the beginning, the transitional course help smooth the transition from learning about life to learning the academic life which, indeed, transformed my attitude about higher learning.

The motivation for success did not stop with Meg Barefoot, my academic advisor; it extended onto my professors as well. For as long as I can, I will remember my Statistics professor, Professor Gamrat saying, “I’m trying to make you into better thinkers and solve problems”. I took his words and made it part of my own philosophy, so that when I graduate from Duquesne University I know I am a better thinker and skilled to solve problems. My fellow classmate, Jen Settings, can also agree to professors being a big part of nontraditional student retention.

She said, “…retaining nontraditional students, in my opinion, is selecting professors that will “fit” with the non-traditional student.  The non-traditional student typically has had life experiences and career/business experiences that the traditional student likely would not have.  The professor must take this into consideration and be able to appeal to the non-traditional student/audience by tweaking their lesson plans and teaching styles accordingly.”

Moreover, there’s value in simply being in a class of adults going through a similar journey. I have concluded, as a nontraditional student, that it is possible to raise a family and get your degree if you surround yourself with souls that are doing the same and have the much needed support from the institution.

I am now a Sophomore heading into my Junior year at Duquesne University which would not have happened without the support, the care, the understanding, the commitment, the determination, the encouraging words and welcoming that I have received from my fellow classmates, my academic advisor and professors, my family, and most importantly my faith in the Lord.

If any of the above characters and characteristics are missing then I must begin to search for the same learning support that has stimulated my thinking, contributed to my academic success, and kept my interest to learn. It is fundamental to any nontraditional student to gravitate to the learning support in any institution; in order, so that his or her academic learning is grounded, and adhere to a successful experience.