College—It’s not Just for 18-Year-Olds Anymore

E-newsletter Issue #126 | November 7, 2013

College and university freshmen aren’t what they once used to be and state policymakers need to look at ways to adapt to that changing reality.

“Yesterday’s nontraditional student really is today’s traditional student,” said Marcie Foster, policy analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy, a national nonprofit that advocates for policies that improve the lives of low-income people. Foster was one of the featured speakers in a recent CSG webinar, “Overcoming Social Barriers to Postsecondary Education.”

The center defines nontraditional college students as those who don’t go to college immediately after high school, attend college only part time, work full time, are financially independent from their parents, have children or other dependents, are single parents or have a GED or other high school equivalency. While higher education used to get few of those kinds of students, their numbers are growing rapidly now.

Foster said between 2000 and 2010, the number of students 25 or younger enrolling in colleges or universities grew by 34 percent. The number of adults older than 25 enrolling during that same time period was 42 percent.

“You have 75 percent of people identifying as nontraditional in one way or another,” Foster said. “You really have to start questioning what our higher education system is doing and how it is serving these students when it is set up for a much different population.”

Colleges and universities are changing to meet the needs of this rapidly expanding group of nontraditional students.

Cynda Alexander is nontraditional student programs coordinator for the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Three-quarters of the 12,000 students at that campus are considered nontraditional. Many of those students also are getting their education online, which makes for new challenges.

“How do you retain a student you never, ever see,” Alexander said. “Well, I have designed an online orientation specifically geared to them so they are cognizant of what our campus offers. I also started a monthly newsletter for nontraditional students, pushing information out to them. … I’m also working on making my website more interactive.”

At the heart of the program is the idea of helping the nontraditional student find a meaningful connection to the university. The university does this with peer tutoring, which helps nontraditional students overcome the stigma they feel of asking for help from oftentimes-younger students at campus labs. Peer mentoring pairs new nontraditional students with current nontraditionals to provide “encouragement, support and connection to the university,” Alexander said.

She said the school also pairs single parent students with a mentor from the faculty.

“These single parents are low income,” she said. “Their success rate is not as good as it could be. … It worked out beautifully. They feel like they have a professional ‘in’ on campus” because of the faculty mentor.

Texas Tech University’s Pioneers in Education: Generations Achieving Scholarship and Unprecedented Success—or PEGASUS—program, focuses on helping first-generation college students find their place on campus.

Freshmen are paired with a sophomore mentor who also has been through the program. Advisers meet with students twice a semester to check on grades and assist students who appear to be struggling. There also are community building social events, public service opportunities, study sessions and workshops that bring in university faculty to help form connections.

Making those connections with the university is vital, said Ashley Gonzales, associate director of the PEGASUS program.

“They don’t realize there are hundreds of other first-generation college students just like them that are faced with the same obstacles,” she said.

Foster said higher education systems need to stop looking at nontraditional students as risky students who are likely to drop out. States need a better-educated workforce and focusing just on the K-12 system is not enough anymore.

“Too often, conversations about improving educational attainment … focus on the needs of early childhood education or K-12,” she said. “While we think those systems are extremely important and critical for developing a strong workforce, research shows that it just won’t be enough to move the needle in terms of quickly improving the skills of the workforce.

“We should not be thinking about this nontraditional population as more risky or more likely to drop out. You really need to look at the factors behind their nontraditional status and look at other patterns that might reveal why these students are having difficulty in the traditional system. … Given the right interventions and policies, we do think that they can succeed at the same or higher rate as other students.”

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