Standing Up for the Nontraditional Student

For decades, the image of a typical college student carried a couple of traits: English-speaking, single, childless, and entering straight from high school. Institutions tailored their programming to ensure these individuals saw their needs met as often and as reliably as possible. But this emphasis on the “typical collegiate” isolates other students who may speak another language, be married, have children, or decide to attend college after gaining some work experience.

A recent study by the American Council on Education’s (ACE) Louis Soares notes that the rapidly increasing numbers of “nontraditional” or “post-traditional” enrollees require just as much outreach as their “traditional” counterparts, especially if the United States hopes to remain competitive globally. Inadequately addressing their unique sets of requirements means denying them an equitable chance at higher education, therefore compromising the nation’s economic survival.

The Study

Soares’ “Post-traditional Learners and the Transformation of Postsecondary Education: A Manifesto for College Leaders,” released January 2013, peers into the diversity of American higher education campuses today and offers a compelling case for paying closer attention. While many experts and commentators trumpet technological innovations like the MOOC as college’s future, he believes the best investment is ensuring post-traditional students (a term he uses in lieu of “nontraditional” because he feels the latter “describe[s] these learners as aberrations to the postsecondary education system rather than the courageous learners they are”) learn in environments meeting their needs.

The study projects that these demographics “reflect a latent market of up to 80 million students able to tap at least some of the $500 billion invested in postsecondary education and training outside of formal postsecondary education settings.” Since nontraditional students now represent 85% of the total number of enrollees, what was once considered the norm around which all ideas and policies formed has now slipped completely into the minority. Institutions must absolutely practice flexibility if they hope to survive. Rigid adherence to the old strategies will only hamstring school and student alike, denying everyone an opportunity to grow and adapt.

Rather than merely pointing out the problem and slumping away, Soares and the ACE outline an extremely broad, five-pronged approach meant to better embrace the post-traditional student. Those forgoing the more well-established degree paths should enjoy access to life skills and vocational training; such programs would require some method of documenting progress, however. In addition, the study advocates “modular, easy-to-access instruction” accessible to a wider range of native and non-native English speakers. Curricula merging both occupational as well as academic measures mean graduates walk away with a more balanced education meant to help them succeed in their careers. With time and finances the two prevailing concerns, the most inclusive schools must provide a more diverse array of fiscal, job, and academic counseling options. Finally, the last necessary solution requires the cooperation of policymakers. Congress has proposed some legislation, which represents at least some acknowledgement that colleges require changes.

The Laws

Although initially proposed in 2001, the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act received the most attention when revamped and reintroduced in 2011. Its basic tenets grant residency to undocumented immigrants, provided they prove themselves of solid character, were minors upon moving to the United States, lived there for at least five consecutive years prior to the bill’s passing, and graduate from an American high school. While the DREAM Act has yet to pass at the federal level, at least 12 states currently consider similar legislation. Maryland passed its version, which included tuition breaks for undocumented residents, on November 2, 2012. Despite sluggish progress, governing bodies have started paying some degree of attention to immigrant students and their unique set of higher education challenges.

Some post-traditional students enter college following (or during, in some cases) military involvement. The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, better known as the GI Bill, initially passed in 1944; unsurprisingly, a few things have changed over the past couple decades. At its core, the legislation eases the transition from the Armed Forces into either civilian work or postsecondary education. It provides low-interest loans for entrepreneurial pursuits, discounted mortgages, vocational training, and tuition and board for higher education – which includes online and distance learners. For servicepersons with over a decade of service, they have the option of transferring the college support to their children. Alterations made in 2010 included reimbursement for standardized exams (ACT, SAT, GRE, etc.). 2011 saw the passing of the GI Bill Fairness Act, which intended to improve upon the academic benefits by providing the maximum amount of in-state tuition for undergraduate degrees. The legislation isn’t exactly perfect. Sometimes it seems like every few years, Congress must pass addendums to reverse issues with the previous round of addendums. But the GI Bill still adapts itself to the times whenever possible, like supporting students hoping to attend for-profit or online schools.

The Higher Education Act originally passed in 1965 to provide student loans meant to make college more affordable. Its most recent ratification occurred in 2008, under the Higher Education Opportunity Act. Under the new ordinances, schools are required to engage in more straightforward discussions of their expenditures. They must also provide an approved calculator on their website so prospective and current students might plan their payments and figure out how much financial aid their classes require. It also increased the Pell Grant and lowered the requirements for the disabled to qualify for fiscal assistance. Although imperfect, when these programs work they create more opportunities for individuals who might not otherwise afford higher education. The legislation might reach out across demographics. However, its structure particularly helps out nontraditional students for whom finances exist as the most pressing concern, such as married students or students with children.

The Students

So many discussions regarding how to best reach out to the post-traditional student get tossed about the higher education sector, but rarely do they ever seem to include the heaviest-impacted individuals. The students themselves so often offer excellent insight into improving their opportunities. Beyond the studies, however, it seems as if everyone remains content with allowing upper-level administrators and researchers to speak for them. But the only way to truly grasp the stories and struggles of the nontraditional or post-traditional student is to actually listen to their stories firsthand.

Roughly 18% of American college students are married, according to a 2008 study by the National Center for Education Statistics. This creates an obvious set of unique challenges many schools overlook.

“We were not experiencing the ‘normal’ college experience. We didn’t party, we rarely went out, [and] any free time we had was spent with each other,” states Pam Taylor, who completed a degree in English and philosophy from Texas Tech while married.

“We also had to deal with people who were living the typical “drink till you can’t stand” college lives in the form of trust issues and infidelity, which is challenging at any age but we were experiencing life so much different than our peers that I feel like it added an extra layer [of disconnect].”

She did not feel as if the school provided sufficient resources for married students, exacerbating the sense of isolation from campus, and “if they did it was never made known to me or my husband.” To Taylor, addressing the needs of married students isn’t terribly difficult; it all boils down to more communication.

“[I]t would have been beneficial to be able to have a resource for help with financial decisions or advisement,” she asserts, adding that promoting these services more rigorously would make a positive difference.

Adding kids to a marriage unsurprisingly means even more responsibilities, stretching schedules thinner. About a quarter of all college students are parents, juggling their educational needs while ensuring their kids get fed, clothed, medicated, and transported to and from school safely. Josh Hebert balances both. The Ph.D. candidate in physics at University of Texas chastises “the workaholic culture of academia” and its role in compromising a well-balanced life.

“There is an expectation that, if you are a ‘serious’ academic, you spend all your time and then some on your work. If you sacrifice your personal and family life in order to further your research and career, that is somehow perceived as a virtue … As a consequence, it takes me longer to get things done and I have to constantly remind myself that I’m not being an irresponsible scientist — I’m being a responsible husband and father.”

UT, as with many other major (and some minor) colleges and universities, provides low-cost childcare options. Hebert and his wife Gwen found such services quite a relief. But with finances a prevailing concern for couples and singles with children, further discounts on necessities would not be unwelcome.

“In this era of budget cuts and austerity, I don’t see that there is much more that colleges can do. Naturally, I would like to see more subsidization of child care and medical expenses, as well as access to better subsidized housing, but I don’t see this happening anytime soon. I would also like to see an elementary school that is near or on-campus and serves the needs of the university community: faculty, staff, and students alike,” he explains. But with the economy so sluggish, such amenities probably won’t surface anytime soon.

Hebert also spent the majority of his education over the age of 25, belonging to a demographic making up 38% of the student population — a further quarter are over 30. In his experience, schools do not delineate between older and younger students, though he thinks they should. Enrollees over 25 to 30 “reap many benefits from the wisdom that comes from [their] life experience[s],” but may not possess the same spryness and energy as they did before.

Unfortunately, “the university first needs to recognize that such needs exist, and that the experience of older students is not the same as that of their younger peers” — which they so often overlook.

“I guess one thing universities could do would be to have a different set of expectations for older, returning students,” notes Herbert. “The amount of time allowed for the completion of a degree program could be extended for older students, reflecting the reality that we are neither as fast nor as free to work as the ‘kids.’”

Following seven years in the U.S. Navy Submarine Service, Bryan Smith attended Sam Houston State University between 2004 to 2007 – prior to the recent revamps of the GI Bill. Although he lauds the school and its student body for their support, he admits the adjustment to civilian life often involved difficulties involving factors so many take for granted.

“We’ve been out of an academic environment for a time, and as such, avenues such as these which would seem like second hand to the average student might be lost on us,” he explains. “While we’re often considered more mature in terms of our academic pursuits, I think the university could maybe do a better job of highlighting avenues in which we can enhance our studies,” such as “tutorials and the like.”

Once again, an increased amount of outreach and greater awareness of services already available crops up as the recommended solution. An estimated 500,000 current and former military personnel have taken advantage of the GI Bill’s educational benefits. With so many servicemen and -women entering higher education, higher education needs to formulate viable strategies for better integrating them into the new setting. Understanding how their experiences sometimes preclude knowing things more traditional students already do is a great start.

Because Really, It All Just Goes Back To …

… communication and inclusivity. No matter the situations, these common themes always arise. Colleges and universities must exert the effort to hear the complaints of their non- and post-traditional students — especially since their numbers only grow. Guaranteeing them more equitable standing in academic spaces is the only way to ensure they remain enrolled. Everyone deserves a fair shot at higher education, and denying the nontraditional pupils over circumstances they cannot help winds up denying fellow students some valuable perspectives and colleges their money. More open environments means all participating parties benefit, regardless of whether or not they speak English, get married, served in the military, or have children along the way.

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