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Pursuing A Degree Presents Significant Challenges for Non-Traditional Students
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Pursuing A Degree Presents Significant Challenges for Non-Traditional Students

While two-year colleges are well-suited to meet the needs of non-traditional students, four-year universities must take major steps to better accommodate this growing group of students.

Now, more than ever, people are enrolling in college degree programs, especially those who have been in the workplace for a significant amount of time. College enrollment is at record-high levels. Some people are enrolling in college to gain an advanced degree. Others may be enrolling for the first time ever, or even returning to finish an incomplete degree.

One type of student universities are often ill-equipped to properly serve are non-traditional students — those who aren’t attending college right after graduating from high school. In many cases, non-traditional students have to balance the demands of family, their work and their academic duties. The rigors of a college degree program are often difficult enough for many students who don’t have family and career responsibilities, let alone those who do.

How can higher education deal with the influx of students looking to advance (or even change) their careers? From my personal experience as a non-traditional student, community colleges are leading the pack in catering to the needs of this group of students. While major universities have expanded their offerings to include night, weekend and online courses, many students are finding that community colleges have a much greater selection of courses that may serve their needs. Of course, at some point, students pursuing a four-year degree will have to transition from a more flexible two-year institution to a major, four-year university. The transition can be quite difficult for non-traditional students if the university they transfer to does not have an adequate support system or course offerings that meet their demands.

A challenge faced by higher education is how to make courses fair to all students in attendance.  Often times, non-traditional students simply do not have as much time to devote to course materials as other students. How can educators respect the needs of one segment of their student population without neglecting others? Some colleges have addressed this issue by offering flexible semesters, where students can have almost twice the time to complete the course. While there are some drawbacks to these types of course arrangements, students who face an uphill battle in devoting time to a particular course can use this option, while taking other courses during a “standard” semester. The end result is that a student is able to cover the same material presented in a “standard” course format but, with fewer demands on their time, they can focus on the material and ensure their academic success.

A successful non-traditional student will most likely enroll in numerous evening, weekend, online and “flex” courses during their pursuit of a degree. While online courses have been available for nearly 20 years (and correspondence courses before that), a stigma surrounding these types of courses still persists. Truth be told, many online and correspondence courses are just as rigorous as their standard classroom-based counterparts.

Once students find the right courses to fit their needs, the real challenge begins. While time management is key to the success of any student, effective management is much more critical when said resource is scarce. A key strategy for any student is to devote time each day to his or her academic progress. For non-traditional students, this is doubly important, so as to prevent falling behind in coursework. One other crucial consideration for students is to ensure an adequate support system is in place. For non-traditional students, this may mean securing a babysitter or even having a supervisor at work who can provide schedule accommodations.

With a good choice of college, careful planning, a strong support system and a lot of hard work, many non-traditional students can achieve success in their academic goals.

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2 Responses to Pursuing A Degree Presents Significant Challenges for Non-Traditional Students

  1. Frank Gowen Reply

    2013/04/17 at 12:29 pm

    I appreciate the sentiment behind offering “flexible semesters.” It certainly shows that there has been an effort to accommodate non-traditional students. However, in my mind, this group of students would prefer to finish their degrees in less time, not double the time. Perhaps institutions should consider, instead, competency-based assessments, which could shorten the time to completion for non-traditional learners, who could earn credit for prior knowledge and work experience.

  2. Cindy Lauer Reply

    2013/04/18 at 9:20 am

    This piece identifies areas that higher education institutions should consider beyond simply offering alternate delivery formats and course schedules for non-traditional students. Institutions need to adopt a more holistic approach in how they identify and meet the unique needs of this type of student. The approach they take needs to consider not only recruitment and enrollment, but how to improve degree completion and student success. With his discussion on child care, Ray Sanders demonstrates what this approach might look like in practice. Unfortunately, there are still too few higher education institutions that are doing this.

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