Non-Traditionals: The New Disruptive Force in Higher Education

The term ’non-traditional’ seems ubiquitous in higher education today, but even The National Center for Education Statistics is pushed for a more precise definition of this increasingly influential force in the student population. What typically characterizes those in the non-traditional category are students with part-time status, are outside the traditional 18-24 age range, or who have children or other dependents. There are other likely definitions such as having a GED rather than a high school diploma, possessing veteran’s status, the first in their family to go to college, distance learners or ESL students.


If hard to define, the impact of non-traditionals on the campus is anything but. Rather than representing a minority, 75 percent of all undergraduate students fall under at least one of these characteristics — and that figure is only likely to rise. The CLASP Center for Postsecondary and Economic Success predicts that non-traditional student enrollment is projected to increase more than twice as fast as traditional student enrollments between 2012 to 2022, yet the changing makeup of the student population is less about demographics and more about the challenges of providing the education and support that will enable these students to succeed.



"This is a different customer base than the traditional student on campus," pointed out Lisa Malat, Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer for Barnes & Noble College, in a recent College Store Magazine article. "College administrators and educators need to do whatever they can to develop the kinds of messaging and programming that will resonate with (these) students now," she advised. Keeping the college experience desirable and relevant for a cost-conscious and time-crunched population, with highly specific academic objectives, is introducing a new and highly disruptive element to higher education. It’s a dramatic shift to a more consumer driven presentation of course subjects and teaching methods, and has significant ramifications for college faculty. Increasingly, core learning materials are being augmented, and even replaced, by non-traditional sources such as Open Educational Resource (OER) platforms, providing the opportunity for more customized, faculty-designed content.


According to Barnes & Noble College's recent Achieving Success for Non-Traditional Students report, 42 percent of respondents took at least one class online just in the last semester, with 69 percent of non-traditional students saying the ability to take courses online is important. Faced with factors such as convenience, transportation and cost — all vital considerations for anyone juggling their education with multiple off-campus responsibilities — non-traditional students are more likely to prefer online courses than their traditional counterparts. Outside of the classroom, and reflecting their increased financial responsibilities, career support is considered a priority for non-traditional students, but many feel like they could still use more help from their schools. According to the study, 72 percent of non-traditional students consider career counseling an important resource with many expressing a more pronounced interest in getting help with developing career skills, finding and applying for jobs, understanding the job market and networking.


The research also reflected a harsher reality for non-traditional students: Many of the students polled felt isolated from their campus and only 37 percent of those considered ‘at-risk’ felt confident they would be able to accomplish their goals. Access to education, while managing hectic and sometimes stressful lives, is a clearly distinguishable success factor for these students in achieving those goals. And as the non-traditional category expands, educators will be under even more pressure to tailor the delivery of their courses to increasingly more exclusive populations. By 2020, for example, over five million service members are expected to transition out of the military, and with the passing of the Post-9/11 GI Bill nearly ten years ago, college campuses have already seen a marked increase in enrollment of veteran students across the country. There is also a move towards colleges developing well targeted and highly intense courses designed to provide students with the skills and qualifications they need for specific professions while reducing the study time required away from the wage-earning workforce.



Reflective of the social environments they serve, the impact of non-traditionals on higher education is being seen in the development of more inclusive and accommodating campus environments — along with teaching programs that reflect a wider sense of diversity. As a group, non-traditional students are particularly vigilant in weighing the value of college and how their investment might translate directly to better careers and higher earnings, or help them realize that dream profession. With the motivation and power of being able to comparison shop for those institutions and those course offerings that best fit their needs, they’ve become the savvy consumers of higher education and the lightening-rod that is forcing colleges to continually re-evaluate and improve the educational services they offer in order to stay viable.


Achieving Success for Non-Traditional Students report, click here.


For more information about Barnes & Noble College Insights, click here.