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The Non-Trads Are Coming… The Non-Trads Are Here!

Non-traditional students are changing the face of higher education, and institutions have a few options as to how to proceed; they can ignore it, create separate units or transform their institution altogether. Image by Scott Maxwell.

Increases and Decreases

In the U.S. nontraditional students are a growing population. These increases in nontraditional students are not exactly news if we look back over the past two decade. From 1990 to 2004, the enrollment of students aged 25 and over increased 17 percent. In 1995, 40 percent of all U.S. adults [25 years or older] participated in postsecondary courses and in 2001, the number rose to 46 percent (Selingo, 2006). The National Center for Education Statistics’ (NCES) longitudinal analysis reveals that in 2005: 1.3 million students age 30 – 34 were enrolled at degree-granting postsecondary institutions, and their projections reveal that by 2015 that number will have increased to 1.7 million. NCES projects that 2.7 million students ages 35 and older will be enrolled at degree-granting postsecondary institutions, with 2015 projections of 3.3 million (NCES, 2002).

We can look at this situation in the converse by examining projection data about decreases in traditional students. In the U.S. there will be no national growth in the number of high school graduates during the period of 2011 to 2021 (Kelly & Strawn, 2011). In Massachusetts where I practice, as in thirteen other states, the number of high school graduates will be 5 to 10% lower over this time period than what it was in 2011. These decreases have nothing to do with dropout rates as they are strictly grounded in population changes; less children of high school graduation – first year college student age. Decreases in the number of traditional students will surely impact the fiscal health of colleges and universities.

These increases and decreases are significant. College enrollment for adults ages 25 and older is projected to be at 22.6% by 2019, surpassing adults ages 18 to 24 years, at 9.7% (Kelly & Strawn, 2011). Are ready for this?

Response A: Status Quo -Sometimes Known as ‘Head in the Sand’

Perhaps some of us are ready – more likely the Evollution readership. But my experience is that Admissions Offices are still targeting the teens. Like any response to change you have the typical spectrum of naysayers, coupled with those who are mired in the long historical tradition of the ‘academy’ where change is slow. I am sure that these changes will continue as steady increases and decreases that may not be drastic and consequently may go unnoticed. But what if we do want to change to meet this trend?

Response B: Specialized Units or Segregation?

One steadily emerging option has been the specialized unit. Often adjunct to the institution with some overlapping functions, these units are dedicated to meeting the nontraditional learners and supporting their success. Sometimes this is a college within a university, sometimes this is a center for adult learners or an office for prior learning assessment or accelerated learning. Most assuredly this specialized unit is grounded in the tenets of many of higher education’s long-held Continuing Education units. Xenia Coulter and Alan Mandell from Empire State College shared a paper entitled, “Should Adult Learners Be Segregated?” after the 2010 Adult Higher Education Alliance Conference. In this paper they recount how many of these specialized units serve to segregate nontraditional students and leave the rest of the institutions unchanged. Faculty are unchanged using pedagogy that assumes students who are young, unformed and in need of molding and guidance (Coulter & Mandell, 2010). The institution is unchanged offering courses to adults that engage full time faculty in limited ways or courses that are often inconvenient or in deficit scheduling making degree completion difficult.

Coulter and Mandell (2010) argue that nontraditional students in specialized units are “effectively segregated into special night classes, or into various weekend or online programs.” Largely these specialized units are housed in institutions, many of which are for-profit, that are expensive for the working adult learner. Despite these challenges, are these segregated units a step in the right direction? Do they not give access or options to nontraditional students?

Response C: Integration and Transformation?

What’s left for options? The one that is probably the most difficult yet offers the most promising outcomes for all students: Integration and transformation. Cesar McDowell (2011) speaks about ‘planning for the margins’ using an analogy of a tent. If we plan for what takes place on the edges, effectively the populations that are not mainstream and marginal, then the tent and all that it encompasses benefit. We have surely learned that planning more effectively for diverse populations, to ensure inclusion, have created wonderful opportunities for learning, creativity and transformation that far exceed the academic walls. In my own research nontraditional students not only wanted to connect with others, students and faculty, to allay their feelings of isolation, but they wanted assistance to cross boundaries and collaborate with younger students. Does this not sound like a benefit for traditional students too? How wonderful this could be as we prepare all students for workplace collaboration! This integration and transformation could mean better systems and classroom for all students. It does require resources however – professional development is necessary, rethinking and retooling approaches to support and engagement must be undertaken and perhaps even efforts for greater family integration or intergenerational work. That’s innovation and it comes at a price! Are we interested? Are we willing?


What do you know about these trends? What do you think about these options? This article poses these questions for our continued learning as a community committed to nontraditional students.



Kelly, P., & Strawn, J. (2011). Not just kid stuff anymore: The economics imperative for more adults to complete college. Center for Law and Social Policy and the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems. Retrieved from

National Center for Education Statistics. (2002). Special analysis: Nontraditional undergraduates. Retrieved from

Coulter, X. & Mandell, A. “Should Adult Learners Be Segregated”. Adult Higher Education Alliance. Retrieved from

McDowell, C., (2011, November). Designing for the margins: Service-Learning and community engagement as an act of liberation. Speech presented at the International Association for Research in Service-Learning and Civic Engagement Conference, Chicago, Il.

Selingo, J. (2006). On the fast track. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from

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