Published on 2014/09/17

Relationships = Retention: Embracing Non-Traditional Students on College Campuses (Part 2)

Relationships = Retention: Embracing Non-Traditional Students on College Campuses (Part 2)
Creating strong relationships and bonds between non-traditional students and the institution is critical to supporting their postsecondary retention and success.
This is the conclusion of a two-part series by Devora Shamah on how institutions can better serve non-traditional students returning to higher education after stopping out of high school. In the first piece, she outlined some of the reasons why adults will return to higher education after dropping out of high school. In this piece, she discusses some of the strategies that are particularly successful when it comes to retaining these learners.

Support for all students is most effective when it’s anchored by caring, mentoring relationships. Students feel better about engaging with their education (and generally have better academic outcomes) when they perceive others to be invested in their success.[1] Especially on large campuses, it’s important that faculty reinforce for students that they’ve been noticed and that, with effort, they can succeed. In order to better support and retain adult students who are coming back to campus, college administrators and faculty should provide a variety of ways to connect with faculty outside of class. This may mean small structural changes such as ensuring faculty are available before and after class, sponsoring social events that faculty attend or making sure all students have at least one smaller course early in their education program, providing them the opportunity to connect one-on-one with the instructor. Because older students with more life responsibilities have tight schedules and may be taking evening and weekend classes, particular attention needs to be given to the timing of when activities are offered. Having affordable child care available during class hours and beyond can allow parents the freedom and flexibility to spend more time engaging with educational opportunities and activities on campus.[2]

In addition to providing opportunities to build relationships, creating easy connections between faculty and student support professionals can improve the ability of a support team to intervene with struggling students in proactive ways when they encounter challenges instead of doing damage control retroactively after they fail a course. Early warning systems are one way to do this. Faculty can alert the advising team when a student misses class or assignments or fails a critical test so that advising teams can reach out to students to connect them with resources, whether those are academic resources located in the student success center or community resources to help with issues such as transportation and child care, which so often present the largest obstacles to an adult student.

Retention — whether or not a student continues to enroll in courses and remain on track for graduation — is generally considered a student decision. Campuses leave it to students to decide to continue their coursework each term and re-enroll in the next term. However, students make their retention decisions within the context of the college program they’re attending. This means there are ways we can nudge students toward a decision to continue rather than step out. One way is to create clear pathways to obtaining a credential or degree. Another way is to offer acceleration programs to catch up on math and reading. Recent research demonstrated the power of text messaging to reduce the summer melt for college freshman.[3] It’s likely that similar methods can increase retention and, ultimately, completion for students who are pursuing their education alongside other responsibilities. Reaching out with a phone call or a text to let a student know someone has noticed they haven’t yet registered for a term is a powerful yet simple way to remind a student he or she is part of the campus community. Inspiration for new ways to connect with students and provide a supportive, rigorous and engaging education and campus experience lies both within the many colleges across the country doing this work and among the students themselves. As these non-traditional students continue to bring new skills, strengths and experiences to the classroom, colleges will do well embrace the diversity of their students and provide the support necessary to allow them to reach their goals.

– – – –


[1] Kuh, G. D., Kinzie, J., Schuh, J. H., & Whitt, E. J. (2010). Student success in college, (Includes New Preface and Epilogue): Creating Conditions That Matter (1st ed.). Jossey-Bass and Tinto, V. (1975). Dropout from higher education: A theoretical synthesis of recent research. Review of Educational Research, 45(1), 89–125.

[2] St. Rose, A., & Hill, C. (2013). Women in community colleges: Access to Success. Washington D.C.: AAUW.

[3] See the Strategic Data Project:

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Readers Comments

Emma Coyle 2014/09/17 at 4:58 pm

I really don’t think it’s up to faculty to care for students in this way. I’m sorry but I don’t. We’re there to teach. The more involved we become in the trials and tribulations of our students lives, and the more we start to care about retaining them over teaching them, the less effective we will be as educators. Those conversations about their challenges will paint the way we grade, will paint the amount of work we give or our leniency for late work. We cannot be effective this way.

    Brendan Morrow 2014/09/18 at 9:34 am

    Are you serious? Thank you for proving why the unbundling of faculty roles needs to happen sooner rather than later. If you’re telling me you can’t be a compassionate human being while also teaching someone, you shouldn’t be teaching. And if we separated the grading responsibility from the teaching responsibility, you wouldn’t have these concerns. It would free you up to be the compassionate teacher that students need and are looking for. However, it’s exactly the faculty members who say “we can’t possibly be objective if we start caring about the students” who kick and scream when we talk about this unbundling. I think, the fact of the matter is, that many faculty members are bad at what they do but have no interest in getting better and have no interest in systems that would force them to improve.

Jennifer Long 2014/09/17 at 4:59 pm

It’s interesting to consider how something so simple as creating a clear path for students from enrolment to graduation can have such a massive impact on success. ASU did something like this with their e-advisor system. Simple but hugely effective.

Julio Sanchez 2014/09/19 at 10:18 am

I agree with Shamah’s point that retention has often been thought of as a student’s decision. Unfortunately, this type of thinking causes institutions to overlook the ways in which they contribute to student drop out by having inflexible or unresponsive processes or services. We tend to think that students drop out of a program because of academic issues; in reality, it’s often because of factors such as financial aid not coming through (either not at the right time or not the right amount), lack of child care options, a crisis at home, inaccessible instructors, etc. All of these external pressures can be mitigated, to some extent, by institutions — if they’re only willing to make changes to better support adult students.

Parker Emmett 2014/09/19 at 10:29 am

Interactions with faculty outside of class can be extremely useful in keeping adult students motivated and on track. One thing many non-traditional students are eagerly looking for is feedback on their work. Having been out of school for a long time, in some cases, and entering a system that was largely designed for much younger students, adults often aren’t as able to gauge where they are in a course and where they need improvement. Having access to continuous feedback as they go through a course can help them identify and address problems early to ensure success.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *