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Nontraditional Students in Higher Education

Types of Nontraditional Students in the United States, Support for Nontraditional Learners

The term traditional students describes the characteristics of most students attending colleges and universities before 1970. These included: age between the late teens and early twenties; immediate entry to higher education following high school; full-time attendance and completion of a four year degree in four to five years; residence at the college or in its vicinity; and primary financial dependence on family sources. Traditional students also generally were neither married nor responsible for other family members.

In North America, beginning about 1970, higher education institutions began to see an influx of significantly different students, to whom the term nontraditional students was applied. The most prominent differences were that these students were older and had interrupted formal education either before or after finishing secondary school. Postsecondary schools in other developed countries, for instance Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) members, also experienced increases in older students. In the early twenty-first century, some believe nontraditional students have become the new majority, and traditional students the exception.

Direct comparisons of nontraditional students across countries are difficult because of varying frameworks of data collection. Examples can be seen from the United States, United Kingdom, and selected OECD countries such as Canada, Germany, and Japan. Initially, the simple age criterion of twenty-five years of age or older was used to define nontraditional students. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), by the mid-1990s the proportion of these students in institutions of higher education had grown to more than 40 percent. A later mid-1990s NCES study of beginning undergraduates broadened the factors to seven characteristics, including later than usual initial enrollment, financial independence, full-time employment, part-time attendance, responsibility for dependents other than a spouse, being a single parent, and high school equivalency by means other than a diploma. It also classified nontraditionals as minimally (one factor), moderately (two or three factors), or highly (four or more factors) nontraditional. The study described nearly three-quarters of beginning undergraduates as at least minimally nontraditonal. A Canadian-American association concerned with nontraditionals even proposed a new classification, New Trads, to include younger students attending part-time but lacking extensive adult life experience.

Elsewhere, other factors applied. A 1997 United Kingdom study described nontraditional students as having later age on entry, but also included ethnic, disability, and socioeconomic level factors. Germany explicitly counted senior students and part-timers, but its university system is difficult for part-time students to access. Ireland and Japan increased access for nontraditional students only in the 1990s, so their rates of increase are smaller than other countries. Clearly, nontraditional students are somewhat older and have alternative qualifications for admission than do traditional students, and, depending on country, perhaps other adult-like or situational factors.

Types of Nontraditional Students in the United States

In 1997, using only the age criterion of twenty-five or older, nontraditional enrollments numbered 6,149,000, or nearly 43 percent of all students in higher education. Such a broad group probably includes some representation of all aspects of the total population, but in important considerations, such as gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and regionalism, nontraditional learners do not mirror American society precisely. Some salient characteristics of the group have implications for how providers plan, design, and conduct programs for nontraditional learners, and the supporting services they should provide.

Even including younger people with adult characteristics of autonomy and financial independence, nontraditional learners generally are older than traditional students at the same level. This accounts for why so much of the discussion of nontraditional learners takes place in the context of adult learning, although counselors should be sensitive to the varying circumstances of younger students. Adults are likely to have maturity and experience that can benefit their study, but they may also have formed fixed convictions that restrict their openness. Nontraditional learners often lead complex lives with many responsibilities that compete with their educational goals. They tend to be employed full-time or for extensive part-time periods. Similarly, many are married with demanding family responsibilities and community involvements. Demands on their time often limit them to part-time enrollment and longer times to complete degree and certificate sequences.

Adult women have entered at a higher rate than men, and are helping to outnumber the greater proportion of male enrollment that prevailed before 1970. Women are more likely than men to be responsible for younger or older dependents and a larger portion of them attend part-time.

Other situational factors affect participation. Nontraditional learners are more likely to reside in urban or suburban areas, rather than rural areas. This may be related to the proximity of educational institutions and could be relieved by the growth of distance learning systems. Proportionally, more nontraditional students come from the western or Rocky Mountain states than the rest of the United States, and fewer come from the New England and the mid-Atlantic states. In addition, the ethnicity of nontraditional students does not parallel that of the national population. Asian and non-Hispanic white students enroll at a higher rate than their proportion of the general population, while African Americans and Hispanics participate at a lower rate. In their thirties, however, the proportion of African Americans enrolled in higher education is higher than that of the general population, which suggests that gap may be closing for them. The same is not true of Hispanics, whose numbers may be affected by the immigration of less educated persons. Immigrants make up an increasing number of nontraditional participants in higher education, with needs ranging from English as a second language to revalidation of high-level professional qualifications for certification or licensure in the United States.

Surveys over several decades confirm that the primary motivation for nontraditional enrollment has been career improvement. For younger participants, obtaining credentials necessary to enter desired employment has been critical. People between thirty-five and fifty years of age often seek to improve their career prospects with expanded qualifications. This marks an important shift in motivation toward growing one's capabilities to keep up with changing knowledge demands or to assume greater responsibility. People in their later years, on the other hand, are more likely to pursue personal enrichment goals, and even to seek degree credentials for their own sake. A great many nontraditional learners come to higher education with credit earned in earlier enrollments and are eligible for assessment of informal learning for credit. Nontraditional learners are likely to take longer to complete their degrees than traditional students and to have higher attrition in their first year. Those who continue to the second year have persistence rates closer to traditional students.

Support for Nontraditional Learners

The greater maturity of most nontraditional learners, and the complexity of their daily lives, means that they have different expectations for their learning experiences and different needs for services responsive to their circumstances. Many institutions have made adjustments to assist nontraditional learners, and that practical experience can be an invaluable resource to others who wish to follow their example.

Innovations have involved three major shifts in perspective. These changes have their roots in an emphasis on fulfilling human potential and realizing individual autonomy. Leading exponents have been Malcolm Knowles, Jerold Apps, and Stephen Brook-field.

First, there has been an effort to remove barriers, both situational and dispositional, to nontraditional learner participation. The most daunting of these has been a rigidity in attendance requirements that are incompatible with the other responsibilities of these students. New time and place options have brought much greater choice and flexibility. The growth of asynchronous distance-learning offerings through electronic technology could eliminate this barrier entirely. More flexible access to other important services has become more common as well. Clearer information on institutions and the specific programs needed for career or other learning goals is available. Access and guidance to financial aid has improved. Programs for nontraditional learners provide reentry or orientation workshops to reacquaint applicants with college level study or to reduce anxiety about reentry after an interruption. Some of these are linked to resources to refresh college study skills.

The second major change has been to reorient the learning transaction to focus on learners. Instructors assume roles as facilitators or mentors to work with learners to design individualized curricula. Often working in groups, they establish a climate of mutual respect, trust, and feedback. These groups take account of the contribution that previous experience can offer, but try to foster a spirit of critical reflection and openness to new ideas and information. According to Brookfield, "the aim of facilitation is the nurturing of self-directed, empowered adults" (p. 11).

Finally, nontraditional institutions increasingly provide continuing academic and personal support to sometimes-vulnerable nontraditional learners. On the academic side, there is greater recognition of the value of ongoing counseling and developmental monitoring, in addition to close attention at entry. The support can include preparation for leaving the program, such as career counseling and exit seminars to deal with the anxiety of a new transition.

Learners also may need a variety of nonacademic services throughout the program. These include food or refreshment services and lounge spaces at late afternoon or evening times, convenient parking and campus security, child care for young children, and perhaps personal counseling to assist with stress or unanticipated emergencies.

The recognition of, and the adaptation to, nontraditional learners since the 1970s has been impressive. Any institution that pretends to serve society must take responsibility for nontraditional learners in the knowledge age. The National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges (NASULGC) recognized this in their 1999 report Returning to Our Roots: A Learning Society. Yet there is much more many higher education institutions can do to serve nontraditional learners with full commitment.


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DEGABRIELE, GABE. 2001. "Keynote Speech, ANTSHE Conference, June 3–6, 2001." <www.antshe.org/keynote.htm>.

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