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I believe it was Albert Einstein who was once quoted as saying "No problem can be solved by the same consciousness that created it. We need to see the world anew." It would appear that the 21st century student, in our quest for continued education, has subconsciously adopted this philosophy. Imagine that you are a single parent of 2 school-aged children who has been working the same job for the past 7 years when all of a sudden there is a rumor of forthcoming layoffs. Fear sets in as you realize that the only skill you know is the same skill that kept you in your comfort zone for the past 7 years. Now at this point you have two options; either sit at home while collecting unemployment until another job becomes available with the same skill set, or learn another skill. Working in higher education I have seen a shift in the student demographic in that freshman are no longer the 18-year-old fresh out of high school student but to that of the 35-year-old mom who wants to finish her education in an effort to acquire a better paying career. So one might ask them selves, who exactly is the 21st century student and how can educators modify their teaching methods to include this older, highly motivated student. According to ehow.com,  adults return to school for one of these five reasons; career change, to fulfill a goal, learn a new skill, fun or to further their education. In today's tough economic climate, good paying jobs are going to those individuals who are not only skillful in their field, but also highly educated. More and more adults are realizing this fact and taking advantage of all the education incentives provided by the government, which makes going back to school less intimidating and more accessible. In addition, federal funding sources for going back to school have become less of a chore with the growth of online classes. Working adults can now take classes and receive a degree without altering their already very busy lives. This is very important to me because I too, am a 21st century student. I'm a 34-year-old professional male who decided to join the masses in returning back to school to get my degree in network security. People have their different reasons for returning back to school but for me it's the ability to have "career" options instead of "job" options. I can agree with Dee Dee Smith when she states, "returning to school as an adult can be a difficult transition. But you don't have to dive in, you can make the transition slowly." So to better understand my situation I must first find out who the 21st century student/non traditional student is and what makes him/her return to school and how can educators modify their methods to help us along our new journey?
So who is this new aged student and what makes them different? "How should we teach them? Is technology in the class a help or a curse?" These are questions that Marc Prensky proposed that we should ask ourselves. Understanding that today's students have better access to information, we must also learn to deal with the pace in which this student retains new information. According to various sources it can be determined that the average age of the new age student has increased from 18 year olds, up to 28 to 32 year olds. This student is much more mature and stable in that they have the advantage of real life experience. They have had to balance budgets, purchase homes, raise children and make very important life decisions. This gives them an edge up as it pertains to the discipline needed to succeed in a higher education environment. They have also been exposed to a number of new technologies giving them another advantage. When you gauge the type of tools that are accessible by students and compare it to the resources that were available you find that students of today's generation have it easier. How does this fact affect our new, non-traditional student? Well in several ways. When you think about study and research habits of yesterday you probably think of a lot of students sitting in the library going through book after book. Now you can sit literally anywhere in the world and look through those same books and even interact with fellow classmates while working at your own pace. So it's my opinion that when you combine the study habits of older more seasoned students with the resources of today then you have the 21st century student. This student knows how to best utilize the resources available to them to achieve positive outcomes in assignments. There are, however, several misconceptions about non-traditional students. Some can argue that non-traditional students do not fit well into today's education process. One reason is that of student housing. Lonnie Allen states that non-traditional students have become the "white elephants on campus". He goes on to state "it would be strange for someone to see older students walking in and out of resident halls they call home." (Lonnie Allen)
One way to view nontraditional students in this present day is not as a group that is characterized by socially constructed traits such as age or ethnic background or by roles connected by such terms as; "dropout", "immigrant" or "first generation". Rather, nontraditional students can be better viewed as a disadvantaged population. In many aspects, the disadvantage can be linked to economic status. Many economist say that we are currently living in a recession period and with the price of pretty much everything from gas to milk on the rise, colleges and other institutions have no choice but to respond the same way. Some even compare the current financial status of America to that of the recession of the '90s. During the recession of the 1990's, "most institutions responded by again increasing tuition sharply, a response well honed in the last recession and actively encouraged by many governors." (David Breneman) Being that most of our non traditional students can be identified as working class adults, making the decision to return to school in the middle of a lay offs and cut backs can be difficult, not to mention the sharp rise in tuition. With all these variables in place, it's easy to see how this can place the non-traditional student at a bit of a disadvantage. Another way to view the non-traditional student is risk factors. Risk Factors is another concept that is tied to adult students, but the details are not disaggregated by institutional type. A National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) table, "Percentage of 1999-2000 undergraduates with various risk characteristics," addresses "risk factors" for students, including part-time attendance at college, delayed enrollment, having dependents, and working while enrolled. (NCES) Students aged 24 and older are more likely to have dependants while attempting to further their education. Older students are also more likely to be working full time or part time while taking classes. Overall, I believe it's safe to form the opinion that the older the non-traditional student, the higher the risk factor. Another perspective of NCES data addresses employment for adults, those 24 and older, who consider work to be their first priority and college their second. This group is compared to those who are primarily students but also work as a secondary role. While all of these individuals are considered to be adults by age, their lives are likely to be quite different.
Other terms such as "nontraditional undergraduates" capture a porton of this 21st century student population, but do not describe it entirely. For example, Choy defines and characterizes "nontraditional undergraduates" as those at any level of postsecondary education: students who delay their entry to college, who carry a part time academic load, who work while enrolled in college, who are financially independent and may have children or other dependants, who may be single parents, and who do not have high school diplomas. Portions of these students have only one or two of these nontraditional characteristics, while others fit in to multiple categories. (Susan Choy) Choy's data is not disaggregated by age, and thus adult students cannot be separated from the total population. Although there is a lot of literature as well as data sets on the academic progress, enrollment patterns, persistence, and degree attainment of nontraditional students, the connections of this scholarship and the data sets to adult students cannot be verified. Some of this data can be contributed to the rise of teenage pregnancy in America which another segment of non-traditional student. "Teen mothers are mostly single parents. Eighty percent of fathers do not marry mothers and pay less than $800 annually in child support, important income for poor children." (Cindy Reitzi) With numbers like this the odds of this type of non-traditional student successfully finishing college are slim.
There are other methods for non-traditional students to achieve success in higher education however. One of the more popular is the community college. Community college has became, unofficially, the institution for non traditional students because it serves the most disadvantaged populations in higher education. (Grubb & Lazerson) This institutional characteristic, the condition of its students, has help to create a new purpose for the community college. Some could even argue that the more disadvantaged the student, the greater the justification and need for the existence of the community college. While searching for a college myself I can admit that I too was drawn to the open access of the community college and it's easy admission qualifications. Open access can have a variety of meanings but "open" is not an absolute because most programs have selective admissions, from high school completion to test score results and specific course prerequisites, such as Algebra I (for technology) or college-level biology (for nursing). On one hand, the community college's principle mission is arguably access; on the other hand, you may say that the community college does not produce outcomes that are consistent with the access principle for beyond college opportunities. (Quentin Bogart) This suggests that open access is more about "getting in," rather than pushing students onward to postsecondary education. It appears from this research that many colleges may provide access to the institution but do not necessarily "accommodate" non-traditional students. My assumption is that most institutions view non-traditional students as disadvantaged students by their conditions more than by their specific traits for example, as member of minority populations. They are disadvantaged because their conditions are not equal to other groups in society. They have not been afforded the same privileges as others whose conditions of birth, wealth, or socially valued assets place them in favorable conditions. In my opinion institutions must accommodate these disadvantaged students to the extent that their conditions are advantaged even if they cannot be equal in all measures. "Accommodation" is certainly an aspect of access, suggesting that the institutions make room for a wide variety of students especially non-traditional students. I attended a CIO conference in Washington, DC a few months ago and I was fortunate to be able to have lunch with the former president of Pierce College, Robert Garber. I was blown away when he described how in just 5 years the college had gone from having most of it's endowment to come from institutional funds, on campus students, until they opened their online campus. From this new venture he stated that to date about 70% of the institutions income comes from non-traditional students whom the college does not have to house nor feed. I believe this is definitely an untapped market for colleges. Most institutions have the ability to conduct only classes using the same amount of resources and these are students who they never even have to physically see. The financial benefits alone should be enough to convince any college to at least research this option for it's campus. To me it seems to be a win-win situation where as you provide a service to an ever growing population of students while at the same time boosting the income for the institution.
In identifying the non-tradition, 21st century student and assessing their needs, institutions are faced with a unique opportunity recreate how they go about the business of education. Not only must the non-traditional student adapt to change, colleges and other institutions of higher education must adapt as well. Victor Frankl was once quoted as saying "When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves." I believe that this is the mindset of the 21st century student. Since most institutions are not prepared to service the needs of the non-traditional student, they (we) have learned to adapt and change ourselves. We have learned how to modify our lives in order to pursue a dream of higher education in hopes of a better life in the end.