Five Value-Defining Priorities of Non-Traditional Students
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, one of the most significant shifts in higher education is the massive growth of the adult student population, that is, the non-traditional student. The term “non-traditional students” was coined to describe students who delayed entry to college from high school, were not part of a dominant social group, or often were not full-time students learning in a classroom. However, 38 percent of students currently enrolled in higher education are over the age of 25 and one-fourth are over the age of 30. The share of all students who are over age 25 is projected to increase another 23 percent by 2019.
As a result of this growth, an increasing number of institutions are turning their attention to the needs of the adult learner. As they do so, it is important to keep in mind that the motivation in seeking an advanced degree is likely to differ from younger students. In addition, non-traditional students will bring a range of experiences and manifest different developmental stages than those of younger generations.
While non-traditional is the current nomenclature, it is also necessary to state at the outset that institutions need to be thinking of this group as diverse in terms of their educational needs and expectations. The 30-year-old student going to college to major in biology is likely to have very different needs than the 65-year-old student who joins a coaching program or is moved to obtain a doctorate in one of the social sciences. Prior to embarking on a strategy to recruit the adult learner specifically, it is worth engaging in reflective dialogue about what value your institution may bring to this growing and diverse population.
Non-traditional students also take into consideration several elements in determining the value of their educational experience. These elements have implications for both institutional and faculty behavior in serving a non-traditional population.
1. Non-traditional students will be more demanding about the curriculum and the support system offered:
Much like traditional students, they will examine institutions for the basics: how long will it take; how much does it cost, and does the curriculum reflect what I need?
The difference, though, is that they are likely to ask more questions, want more attention during the admissions process and seek out third-party experience and endorsement. In short, they are likely to be proactive and expect a high level of engagement from institutional staff.
2. Non-traditional students tend to have bigger and broader perspectives about their careers and, at the graduate level, their research interests:
These perspectives are evident in the questions they ask about the faculty: does the program have a high caliber of faculty; will I be able to have quality time with and engagement from the faculty?
These are questions that non-traditional students often ask prior to joining a program. Institutions would do well to purposefully address them at the beginning of the potential student’s admissions process. Faculty members need to be made aware that the expectations of older students will differ from younger ones, and that these generational differences will emerge in the classroom.
3. They often possess greater self-awareness:
This aspect of their maturity can be seen in their ability and interest to engage in reflective discussion in the classroom. They also tend to have more clarity about what they are interested in and what they are not interested in. Curricula that is inflexible and lock-step, depending on subject matter and purpose, may be less appealing to the non-traditional student. Their greater self-awareness often leads them to seek out a curriculum that has some degree of flexibility. For example, programs that have a small core and more opportunity for electives and independent studies created by the student with a faculty mentor are more likely to be attractive for the adult learner.
4. Non-traditional students have a greater degree of consumer intelligence:
Partially due to their greater experience in making large purchases, non-traditional students tend to ask more questions about the interrelatedness of different functions at the institution in order to assess overall value. For example, they have very high expectations of institutional support services, such as support for registration, enrollment, financial aid, payment, library, and other support processes. They expect immediate responses to their inquiries and systems that work efficiently. It is not uncommon for adult learners to offer their expertise about learning platforms, user interface, marketing, and even institutional strategy as many of them bring this knowledge from other fields.
For institutional administrators, the consequence of this factor means that non-traditional students generally consume their programs more intentionally. That is, they want programs where they can bring their whole selves to the institution. They expect respect for their longer years of experience and expect to be acknowledged and heard by administrative leaders and support units.
5. Non-traditional students have a longer span of attention for deeper dialogue:
This quality is often seen in their interest in forging a community of peer learners. In a virtual environment, for example, the non-traditional student is likely to build relationships with fellow students through chat rooms and hallway discussions. They may ask whether the learning in their educational experience is entirely independent or will there be opportunities to learn in a collective? At the same time, as noted above, they do appreciate autonomy. Curricula that are most likely to be attractive to non-traditional students will have a combination of structure with opportunities for community, flexibility, and autonomy.
As a final note, non-traditional students have already made the transition from late adolescence to early adulthood. They are more certain of themselves and expect to be treated like the adults they are—with busy lives, jobs, careers, and families. They want a high-quality program that advances their career interests, while also developing themselves intellectually and offering possibilities for personal growth. Simultaneously, they expect that the institution will respect their needs for flexibility, community and autonomy, all wrapped up in a quality program.
While it may seem the easiest of matters to open your institution to adult learners, it is important to consider what resources are needed and what learning your own college or university will need to undertake to serve them well.
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 Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance, Pathways to Success, 2012, downloaded from http://www2.ed.gov/about/bdscomm/list/acsfa/ptsreport2.pdf, February 19, 2015. (p 12)
 NCES, Nontraditional undergraduates, 2002, downloaded from http://www.aacu.org/publications-research/periodicals/research-adult-learners-supporting-needs-student-population-no, February 20, 2015. (p 1-2)