The New 'Traditional Student'

Mark Shaver for The Chronicle

October 15, 2012

Colleges Go Off Campus to Bridge the Military-Civilian Divide 2

Mark Shaver for The Chronicle

Over the past couple of years, as I've traveled around the country talking to graduate students about community-college careers, I've had the pleasure of visiting some of America's finest campuses.

I always take the opportunity, if I have the time, to wander around, breathing in the atmosphere, taking in the sights and sounds. On a certain level, I identify with the students that I see hurrying to class or sprawled on the quad. I began my education at a selective private liberal-arts college, which, although small, had its share of well-manicured lawns, tree-lined walkways, and old stone buildings competing with aggressively modern brick architecture.

My memories of "going off to college" are probably very similar to theirs as well: loading up the family station wagon (today it would be a minivan or SUV), my parents helping me carry my stuff into the dorm, Mom making sure the bed boasted actual linens before hugging me goodbye.

And yet on another level, as a longtime professor and sometime administrator at community colleges, I am increasingly aware that the nostalgic film playing in my head, as I walk those elite four-year campuses, is more akin to an old episode of Leave It to Beaver than to contemporary reality. My experiences and those of the students I encounter at elite campuses no longer resemble the common experience of many college students today. What we used to call "nontraditional" students—older, working, married, and maybe still living at home—now constitute a large and growing percentage of those attending college in the United States. In fact, they are fast becoming the new traditional.

Consider: The National Center for Education Statistics reports that of the 17.6 million people enrolled in college in the fall of 2011, only 15 percent were attending a four-year college and living on campus. Thirty-seven percent were enrolled part time, and 32 percent worked full time. Forty-three percent were attending a two-year college. More than a third were over 25, and a quarter were over 30. By 2019, the percentage of those over 25 is expected to increase by more than 20 percent.

Given the trends—which those of us who work at community colleges have been observing for some time, and which are now playing at four-year campuses near you—how must faculty members adjust their thinking? And their teaching?

That's assuming, of course, that most faculty members want their students, regardless of age or circumstances, to persist and succeed. Because the National Center for Education Statistics has also found that nontraditional students are more than twice as likely as traditional ones to drop out in the first year.

Our colleagues in student services picked up on that trend long ago and began developing programs to help nontraditional students: assistance with financial-aid forms, special tutoring and counseling services, and new centers for veterans and for divorced women who were suddenly thrust into the role of breadwinner. Those are all wonderful programs, and much needed. And yet other research shows that one of the most important factors in determining whether nontraditional students succeed is their experience in the classroom—or what Sherry Miller Brown calls "academic integration." Brown, director of the University of Pittsburgh's McCarl Center for Nontraditional Student Success, said that if nontraditional students perceive their educational outcomes "to represent a fair exchange for time, effort, and money invested, they will be more committed to staying at that particular institution."

In other words, if nontraditional students are going to graduate, then much of the onus falls on classroom instructors. And since we seem to be finding more and more of those students on our rosters every year, perhaps we ought to start taking them into account as we design our courses, plan our lessons, and approach our teaching. Here are some suggestions:

Recognize special needs. Nontraditional students often have legitimate issues and concerns that differ from those of full-time students age 18 to 21. For example, many nontraditional students have been out of school for years, and are understandably anxious about returning. Every semester, it seems, I have a student come up to me after the first day of class—usually a woman in her 30s or 40s—and say something like "I am so scared about your class. I haven't taken English in (fill in the blank) years."

I always try to allay her fears by explaining that writing is mostly about having something to say and that, because she's lived a little longer than some of the other students, she doubtless has more to say and will probably do very well. And it's true. Those students often end up being among the best in the class. But initially they don't know what to expect.

Nontraditional students also tend to have personal, family, and academic circumstances that are much different from those of younger students. Many are married with children (or unmarried with children). Many work long hours to support themselves and their families and to afford tuition and books—and still barely stay above water financially. In some cases, they might not have attended school for a decade or two. Their study skills may well have eroded. They may have forgotten much of what they learned. They may be unfamiliar with new technologies.

Design courses accordingly. The second step, then, is to take all of the above factors into account as you develop your syllabus.

For instance, rules aimed at keeping 18-year-olds from ditching class or dragging in late every day might not work for nontraditional students who have families, jobs, and lives apart from the college. They struggle with bus schedules, child-care issues, and constantly shifting demands at work. Penalizing them for being late or absent, the same way you might penalize a traditional student who stayed out drinking with his buddies or just slept in, doesn't strike me as either fair or productive.

Honestly, strict rules and harsh punishments will probably just drive nontraditional students away, leading them to conclude that college isn't for them. If accommodating nontraditionals means you have to change the rules for the entire class, then so be it. One day they will probably constitute the majority of your students, if they don't already.

You can help nontraditional students adjust academically by using frequent "refresher" sessions to reinforce basic skills. (I suspect those sessions might be just as valuable for your recent high-school graduates.) Don't hesitate to offer extra help in your office or refer people for tutoring.

You can also provide a measure of financial relief by placing course materials online, creating inexpensive course packs, or taking other steps to lower the cost of books and supplies. And once again, your traditional students will probably thank you, too.

Demonstrate relevance. To keep nontraditional students engaged, emphasize as much as possible the connections between what they're doing in your class and what they'll be doing once they graduate. Remember what Sherry Miller Brown said: Nontraditional students need to perceive "a fair exchange for time, effort, and money invested."

Try to regularly establish a clear link between course concepts and "real-world" outcomes. Show them how what they're learning might apply beyond the classroom, in their professional lives. Take every opportunity to incorporate materials from nonacademic sources, such as newspapers, magazines, and Web sites. Structure your assignments to mimic real-life work situations. You can even bring in a guest speaker from a local company or nonprofit group, perhaps someone who graduated from your program.

Roll out the welcome mat. Do whatever you can to make nontraditional students feel valued in your classroom. Remember, this experience may either be entirely new to them, or something they haven't done in years. Besides feeling anxious, they may feel conspicuous because of their age or the way they look, talk, and dress. Even if half of the class is over 30, all they see are the 18-year-olds in their skinny jeans and designer tops.

And yet these older students constitute a wonderful resource. They bring a wealth of wisdom and experience and even skills to the class, along with a perspective on life that may be very different, and infinitely more practical, than that of their 18-year-old classmates.

Take full advantage of those qualities. Do whatever you can to pull nontraditionals into class discussions, perhaps by introducing topics to which they can easily relate. If you can get past their inhibitions, and draw them out, you will find them to be a source of many entertaining and pertinent observations. Choose readings that might be relevant to their situations, and then structure writing and presentation assignments that encourage them to draw upon their experiences. Without showing favoritism, look for opportunities to praise their contributions.

Above all, take advantage of their wisdom and experience to create learning opportunities for young students. As someone who frequently uses editing groups in composition courses, one of my favorite strategies is to mix nontraditional and traditional students in one group. I find that the older ones tend to be quicker than their younger counterparts to identify problems with logic and detail, while students fresh out of high school can often help older classmates with arcane grammar rules and modern submission guidelines. It's a classic "win-win" situation: Everyone learns, and everyone benefits.

Or perhaps I should say "win-win-win," because traditional students aren't the only ones who will benefit from sharing the classroom with people whose life experiences are different from their own. You, as the instructor, will learn a great deal, too, becoming a better person and a better teacher for future generations of nontraditional-cum-traditional students.

Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College and the author of Building a Career in America's Community Colleges. He blogs at and writes monthly for our community-college column. The opinions expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.