Not-So-Non-Traditional Students: How Higher Ed Can Evolve to Meet the Needs of the Rising Number of Non-Traditional Students

If Hollywood is to be believed, college students are all free-wheeling teenagers (or 26-year-olds playing teenagers), who spend their spare time throwing keggers and figuring out how to do laundry. But data on actual student enrollment in higher education paints a different picture.

The National Center for Education Statistics reports that, as of 2013, over 20 million students were enrolled in degree-granting, postsecondary institutions in the United States. More than 8 million—about 40%—of those students were age 25 or older. And well over 7 million students were enrolled only part-time, of which nearly 5 million were in the 25-and-up age bracket.

Colleges and universities are struggling to meet the needs of these students, who are typically defined as “re-entry” or “non-traditional,” despite making up such a large percentage of student populations.

A survey conducted by Strayer University and U.S. News & World Report found that 75% of non-traditional students complete an undergraduate degree, compared to 81% of traditional students, those under age 25 who pursue their bachelor’s degree full-time and are claimed as a dependent on a tax return.

The survey also found that non-traditional students are more likely to be African American or Hispanic and to work full-time. Two-thirds of non-traditional students are the primary earners in their households.

These students may have additional commitments beyond their careers. Texas State University professor Jovita M. Ross-Gordon notes that “a key characteristic distinguishing re-entry adults from other college students is the high likelihood that they are juggling other life roles while attending school, including those of worker, spouse or partner, parent, caregiver, and community member.”

The potential conflict between these multiple roles means that these students tend to “look for degree and certificate programs that provide them flexibility in time and locations for both course completion and for access to key student services.”

In many ways, however, education institutions are not structured to best serve non-traditional students. Among the concerns: on-campus childcare. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that the number of students who are also parents is on the rise, totaling 4.8 million in 2012.

Unfortunately, the availability of campus childcare centers is seeing an opposite trend, with only 49% of four-year public colleges offering them in 2015. At community colleges, that number was 44%, and both statistics had fallen from more than 50% just over a decade earlier.

The impact can be devastating for student-parents. Monroe Community College in New York analyzed data on its students who were parenting one or more children under the age of six. Student parents who used the campus’s childcare facility had a higher retention rate—returning for following semesters—than those who didn’t.

And within three years, 41.2% of parents using the facility had graduated and/or transferred to a four-year college, far surpassing the parents who didn’t utilize campus childcare. Their graduation and/or transfer rate was only 15.2%.

Another issue facing non-traditional students is the inflexibility of higher education. U.S. News & World Report’s survey discovered that, for 24% of non-traditional students, scheduling flexibility was the top factor in choosing a school. Another 12% cared most about the availability of online courses.

Higher education is simply not attuned to non-traditional students, laments The Atlantic: “Rankings, awards, and honors go to institutions with great sports teams, prize-winning researchers, or elite student bodies—never to those that are helping nontraditional students master new skills and so that [sic] they can re-enter the workforce, get promoted, or change careers.”

However, some universities are waking up to the reality that they can better serve non-traditional students. As Forbes reports, “To counter high dropout rates, large online universities, beginning with for-profits like University of Phoenix, have pioneered specialized ‘re-entry’ teams to target recent drops and re-start them in their academic programs.”

Traditional universities may follow suit, creating a market opportunity for re-entry services, which could include “a combination of data analytics, success coaching, and technology support,” Forbes explains. One such company is ReUp Education, which is partnering with Western Governors University and Bellevue University.

Other universities, including West Virginia University and Cleveland State University, have taken a different approach to supporting a non-traditional student population, veterans, through veteran-only courses. Such classes contextualize coursework with examples from military experiences and are sometimes taught by fellow veterans. The classes can also focus more specifically on the needs of student veterans, like the transition from military to civilian life, according to Salon.

Whatever the solution, retaining and re-enrolling students in higher education can result in economic gains for these students and for the country. The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the median usual weekly earnings for people with a bachelor’s degree is $399 more than those with some college education but no degree. Unemployment rates also decrease with degrees earned.

While many still debate whether or not a college degree is necessary, many studies show that a college degree is in the financial best interest of non-traditional students, and universities and colleges can make adjustments to smooth their path to success.

Adelia Humme

Adelia Humme

Previously an academic adviser at her alma mater, Texas A&M University, Adelia has contributed her editorial skills to The Eckleburg Project, Redivider, and Texas A&M University Press. She recently moved from Texas to Boston to pursue a master's degree in publishing & writing at Emerson College. She devotes her free time to reading fantasy novels and spoiling cats.