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Higher Education’s Ignored Students

Higher Education’s Ignored Students
Without significant changes to the three structures that define higher education, non-traditional students will remain on the periphery looking in.
Traditionally, higher education has not been supportive of the needs of non-traditional students, commonly described as those who delay entry to college from high school, are not from socially dominant groups or are part-time students. These students have to navigate three structures — academic, administrative and philosophical — that exist to maintain higher education’s status quo. These structures are designed to meet the needs of somewhat affluent teenagers who live on campus and expect to be guided by faculty, administrators and staff who expect to work within the same rules and cultures they experienced as traditional students themselves.

The Academic Structure

The academic structure of higher education simultaneously ignores and invalidates non-traditional students and their previous attempts at success. Admission standards and program requirements are not designed to accommodate transfer credits, prior learning and part-time study. Non-traditional students are told they will be starting over; none of their existing credits will be accepted, they will have to take or retake the ACT and they will have to attend orientation with all of the other freshmen. There is traditionally little-to-no acknowledgement that these students will also be juggling an already-full life (with work, family and school competing for time and attention) or concern they’re being forced to pay, again, with precious time and money, for the same academic credits they previously earned.[1]

The Administrative Structure

The administrative structure of higher education offers non-traditional learners a take-it-or-leave-it attitude regarding student affairs and academic services. Bookstores, faculty office hours, libraries, testing and tutoring centers, registrar and financial aid offices, student publications and government, advising and campus cafeterias are all designed with the residential student in mind.

Non-traditional students pay fees for services that are theoretically available to them, but that can only be accessed during business hours throughout the week, and perhaps at a couple of hours on the weekends.

I heard a story a little while ago that really makes the take-it-or-leave-it attitude of institutions clear when it comes to non-traditional students. A non-traditional student made an appointment to visit an administrator on campus. This student had to take time off work and travel to campus, only to find that the office was closed; the person the appointment was with was sick or had taken the day off. Could the student come back at a more convenient time? the office suggested.

The Philosophical Structure

The philosophical structure of higher education does not support non-traditional students, as the majority of university and college employees were historically not trained to teach, support, tutor, feed, retain, count and otherwise serve any group other than traditional students who fit the mission of the university.

Faculty and staff entered higher education believing they knew what group of students they would be growing toward graduation; residential students with plenty of time and enough money to focus full-time on their degrees. They expected their students to respect them and their positions of authority, and to follow the rules. Non-traditional students challenged both their assumptions and plans.

For example, in a business ethics class, students straight out of high school with no full-time work experience will generally not challenge theories or ideas. A non-traditional student with several years of full-time work experience, who perhaps owns a business, will not hesitate to question a theory or idea based on practical experience. To faculty, this questioning is seen as a lack of respect. To the non-traditional student, it is an attempt to tie his or her real life to the theory or idea. Faculty are accustomed to being the ‘sage on the stage;’ non-traditional students challenge the pre-existing philosophical structure of this set-up. This has led to non-traditional students being viewed with concern both inside the classroom and out of it.

The Path Forward

Today, higher education is redefining its relationship with non-traditional students, and this group has many more options than in the past. While redefining this relationship, universities will need to address their academic, administrative and philosophical structures concurrently. Adding a line to the website about “welcoming lifelong learners” is honest only if the three structures of the institution are welcoming and ready.

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[1] Rendón, L. (1994). Beyond involvement: Creating validating academic and social communities in the community college. University Park PA: National Center on Postsecondary Teaching, Learning, and Assessment. (ERIC Reproduction Document No.S ED374728).

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