In the 1980s a major switch happened in the culture and population of colleges and universities. Instead of the stereotypical 18-year-old recent high school graduate, the non-traditional student became the norm on campus (source). Most authorities define a non-traditional student as someone who is over 25 years of age, attends college or university on a part-time basis, commute to school, or any combination of these characteristics (sources - list multiple research articles that make this inference). From 1970 to 1985, the growth rate for non-traditional students was 114%, compared to a much smaller increase of 15% in the number of younger, traditional students (Horn & Carroll, 1996). Nontraditional students increased over time from one in four undergraduates in 1986 to nearly one in three (31%) in 1992. Part-time students also increased 87%. Full-time students increased moderately (22% over the same time period). According to a 1991 report, 80% of all students in higher education are commuters and do not live on campus or in campus housing (Villela & Hu, 1991).
The increase in non-traditional enrollment in higher education over the past two decades was the result of many different cultural shifts, including an aging population, equal opportunity and access to education, and the increasing existence of educational experiences tailored for the non-traditional student (source). Women form a large portion of non-traditional students; many of whom take advantage of the opportunity to access higher education for the first time in their lifetime (source). Older learners take advantage of longer life spans and are either going back to school for job fulfillment or learning for the sake of learning and self-actualization (source). Non-traditional students are either degree seekers, problem solvers, or cultural environment seekers (Noel, 1985). Opportunities for minorities have increased the enrollment of non-traditional students in colleges and universities. The working world has also experienced a major cultural shift and many occupations, vocations and professions require higher educational achievement than in the past, even for entry level jobs (source). Higher education continues adapt many of its models to accommodate this kind of learning.
Approximately 68% of non-traditional students matriculate (Villella & Hu, 1991). The difficulties in quantifying this number exactly are in part due to the difficulty of precisely defining who is and who is not a non-traditional student. Is there a typical non-traditional student, and, if so, what does he or she look like? Therefore, the factors that affect whether or not a non-traditional student stays in school vary widely throughout the population. This is a population whose defining characteristics (age, marital and parental status, age, ethnicity) are constantly in flux (Marlow, 1989). Men and women have different experiences and needs; students with children have widely different issues from those without children; single parents have different experiences and needs than married couples or partners with children (source). Women and men experience different needs. Students with children have very different problems from students without children. Different ethnic groups, while they are often gathered together under the larger tag of "minority" despite the fact that their experiences and educational needs vary widely (source).
Since the majority of students at colleges and universities now fit into the non-traditional demographic (source), higher education faculty and administrators need to understand the needs of this community and know why they drop out of school and why they finish their education. There is a need to determine the various factors that non-traditional students take into account when they make their decision to attend college, (b) how these decisions relate to attrition and retention, and (c) assess the role that faculty and administrators must play in providing the necessary services for nontraditional students.
Review of Literature
Over the past few decades, college and university enrollment of the non-traditional student has increased markedly, and this trend has been projected to continue (Aslanian & Brickell, 1980; Padula, 1994; Thomas, 2001). While many non-traditional students have found great success, some non-traditional students have reported being less satisfied than their traditional counterparts with some parts of the university experience, specifically counseling and advising services (Badenhoop & Johansen, 1980; Kirk & Dorfman, 1983; Malin, Bray, Dougherty, & Skinner, 1980; Sands & Richardson, 1984).
In order to explore the experience of the non-traditional student at the university level, it is important to address the kinds of support they receive on campus. Much of the literature relevant to non-traditional students has failed to focus on these components of university life. Rather, the literature has focused on another component of the non-traditional student's life -- the benefits of external family and social supports that nontraditional students receive. This kind of support has been underscored in several research studies (Bauer & Mott, 1990), and at least three unique aspects of this important social support have been identified and explored (House, 1981):
(a) Practical kinds of tangible aid and help, including loans from family members and friends to help defray educational costs; (b) information and advice that helps an individual cope with the stresses raised by going to school; and (c) support that includes praise and validation that improved the non-traditional student's self-esteem and validates his or her choice to go back to school (p. #).
Padula (1994) suggested that several areas need to be explored in creating the best possible experience for non-traditional students: (a) services non-traditional students want and need from advisement and counseling services and (b) how integration of these services should be designed, keeping the student, his or her family, and the university community in mind. These kinds of supports have been show to be valuable to non-traditional students, and studies need to be conducted to further refine their experiences and needs.
Laing, Kuo-Ming, and Robinson,(2005) noted that a traditional student is one who "entered higher education at the age of 18 straight from school or further education, [and] studied continuously and full time for either three or four years" (p. 7). One of the reasons these student see a high success rate is that they usually come from families who have also had experiences with higher education. As children in the families, the traditional student is influenced to pursue a college degree and more prepared to enter the college environment. Both traditional and non-traditional students are influenced by their families' experiences with higher education, and the effect varies based on the family's history (Laing et al., 2005).
One of the difficult challenges for non-tradition students is the transition from their regular life out in the world back into a school setting (source). Going directly from high school to a higher education setting, is an equivalent institution, eases the transition for traditional students. Traditional students have been attending school and living on the school calendar for most of their lives, continuously and intensively, whereas the non-traditional student may have left that environment 10, 20 or more years ago. For the non-traditional student, colleges and universities can be "isolating" and in ways that just aren't experienced by students going straight from, essentially, one school to another (Bowl, 2001). This does not mean that the challenge of transition cannot be overcome, or that non-traditional students cannot succeed. In fact, in some ways they are more prepared than their traditional counterparts because they have developed the life skills gained from holding jobs and raising families. In this way, traditional students are often the ones unprepared for college life. Many students' perceptions of higher education are skewed and based on stereotypical assumptions (source). These perceptions are typically based on their experiences in secondary education. Many believe that college will be moderately difficult academically, and extremely exciting socially (Laing, 2005).
Baker, McNeil, and Siryk (1985) address a concept called the "matriculant myth," which is that first year students' expectation of the university experience is much better than the actual experience they find when they arrive and jump into college life. When a student has a less pronounced version of the myth in his or her head, the adjustment to the college experience is easier. The myth has also been found to persist in transfer students as well as first year students (Buckley, 1971; Donato, 1973). As with any personal belief, there are variations in the intensity of the myth between individual students, but the variance does not appear to fall along gender lines. Men and women hold the myth equally (Baker et al,, 1985). Younger students also tend to assume that their teachers in college and the learning environment and expectations are similar to those they just left behind in high school. Too often this results in "many students (due in part to their previous educational experiences) will have entered higher education without having taken responsibility for their own learning" (Laing, 2005, p.170).
Attrition is a complicated issue for any student, but for a non-traditional student, the issues are even more complex, especially for those who may be giving higher education a second chance after dropping out earlier in their lives. According to Noel (1985), there are several major themes that influence a non-traditional student's decision to drop out of school. They include academic boredom and uncertainty about what to study, limited and/or unrealistic expectations of the university experiences, transition/adjustment problems, being academically unprepared or under-prepared, and irrelevancy. Pantages and Creedon (1978) reported that the greatest attrition rate occurs among first-year students, and this group is not very likely to return to college at a later date. Even if they do drop out, the longer a student persists in a university or college setting the more likely it is that they will perceive attaining a degree as beneficial (Tinto, 1975). Additionally, retention studies have emphasized that social and academic integration at the school is a major factor in retention (Pascarella & Chapman, 1983). Attaining this integration is over a challenge for the non-traditional student, as they often commute to campus and are not around the college setting during the off hours when many social activities take place. Murguia, Padilla, and Pavel (1991) discovered that students in minority ethnic groups often had access to this social integration through groups, clubs and enclaves on campus aimed at their specific group.
Bean (1980) found differences between the genders in the reasons for leaving school. Men need satisfaction in the role of a student, institutional commitment, being valued by the institution, a predictable and a stable routine. Women need to have a sense that the role of a student is routine, institutional commitment and quality programs. Institutional commitment - the sense that the college or university understands their needs as non-traditional students and makes accommodations for such needs - ranked as the most significant indicator of satisfaction for both groups. Another strong factor in student retention is the quality of the relationship between the student and faculty. (Pascarella & Tetrazini, 1980). Also noteworthy was how the student adjusted to college; a well-adjusted student is more likely to be persistent in finishing his or her degree. Mooney, Sherman, and LoPresto (1991) found that this adjustment to college is affected by the student's level of self-esteem, a perception that the distance from home is "just right," and an internal academic locus of control. A higher level of self-esteem and confidence contributed greatly to whether a student would make it through the chosen academic discipline.
There are numerous and varied factors that affect a non-traditional student's participation in and persistence at finishing college, and these often differ from factors that affect traditional students' attrition rates. Some factors are previous educational success, the availability of non-credit courses for people who lack in academic preparedness, and good communication from the school about educational programs. Villella and Hu (1991) discovered that the reality of time constraints of college terms (quarters, trimesters, etc.) and the amount of academic rigor required by university-level courses often led to student stress and dissatisfaction, especially among non-traditional students, who very often have other responsibilities to fit around their academic career, including working full- or part-time, caring for children, etc. Any of these factors, separately or combined, can result in non-traditional students leaving school when traditional students may have persevered.
Bowl (2010) noted "points to the need for institutional change if non-traditional students are to thrive within a system that purports to be directed toward widening participation" (p. 141). The study found that non-traditional students are often frustrated with the lacking accommodation that has been made for their needs on college and university campuses. Non-traditional students are already more likely to enter the school feeling lost and powerless, and entering into higher education can be a "struggle for personal, academic, financial and emotional survival" (Bowl, 2001. p#). Non-traditional student participants in the study often described their school days as being too much for them to fit into their already busy lives, and many felt they may have been better off in a vocational school setting. They also felt that by entering college at on older age they would be forced into the job market immediately upon graduation (Bowl, 2001). Non-traditional students are often juggling more than the traditional student simply because they are at different stages of their lives. Traditional students, who are 21 or 22 when they graduate college, will usually graduate and then start worrying about starting a family, buying a house, paying bills, etc. Non-traditional students already have these added stressors
In the area of non-traditional students, some researchers have turned their attention to examining the relationship of success in college and adult developmental stages. Gleazer (1980) uses Vivian R. McCoy's seven developmental stages as a way to look at non-traditional students and their possible paths to success. Each of the seven stages requires learning skills to handle life's basic tasks, and these tasks offer "teachable moments, because the motivation to learn the new skills and complete the tasks also contributes to the motivation to learn" (p #). Champagne and Petitpas (1989) argue that both traditional and non-traditional students are at a transition point, a teachable moment, in their lives that has led them to seek formal education. The specific tasks to learn may differ from group to group, but the transition process is very similar.
The profile of the college student has evolved over the past few decades, but so have the learning environments that the can access. Universities have recognized that people's lives are perpetually busy, especially the lives of non-traditional students who are not always able to take advantage of school breaks and vacations because they have families and work full-time (Buerck, Malmstrom, & Peppers, 2003). To accommodate the ever-increasing time crunch of their students, schools have started offering courses online as well as in person. Non-traditional students can often return to school online when it would be impossible for them to return to an on-campus, classroom setting. It is also more difficult for the non-traditional student to move themselves and their families to attend school locally. Online courses enable these students to participate in higher education, regardless of where they live.
Little research exists regarding the actual experience of online learning (Vallee, 2007), particularly regarding the nontraditional, adult student. This gap is currently being filled, as many of the research studies on the efficacy of online learning is still ongoing. Through the review of literature the researcher notices that most studies reviewed had a noticeable the lack of qualitative data with respect to the experiences and perceptions of online students, especially the non-traditional adult learner (Maxfield, 2008). This data is especially relevant, however, because the presence of an online learning environment could be a "major factor" in a non-traditional student returning to school (Tsai & Chuang, 2005).
Another issue for non-traditional students is whether they find the teaching they receive at a university to be effective (source). Traditional pedagogies simply aren't designed for the adult learner. Andragogy, or "adult learning" may be a necessity in the new college environment, instead of the option. As recently as 2001, current learning theories and models had failed to inform or influence instructional practices, especially in two of the places adult learners have the most access, distance and online learning (Barclay, 2001). Designing a workable method that enables non-traditional students to apply their knowledge immediately, while still being self-directed in their learning, may help create an effective delivery model. Non-traditional students need to move "away from their old habits and into new patterns of learning where they become self-directed, take responsibility for their own learning, and the direction it takes" (Fidishun, n.d., p. 3). Most non-traditional students are accustomed to being self-directed (Gibbons & Wentworth, 2001). If the professors allow them the freedom to learn and explore, there can be success and retention. Non-traditional students do not want to be made to feel like they are back in elementary school when they return to a university. With the help of technology, online learning has been able to balance the need for both self-directed learning and traditional classroom learning, which non-traditional students often still feel attached.
Higher education is now, more than ever, an option for the non-traditional student. As Buerck et al. (year) noted that "research has demonstrated that key components within the learning environment, such as openness, community, interpersonal interaction, and accessibility, can be enhanced through the use of advanced technologies in the classroomâ€¦and offers potential benefits (e.g. increased retention and convenience, lower cost, the ability to transcend geographical barriers) compared to traditional environments" (p. 137).
A study completed by Buerck et al. (2003) examined the retention of non-traditional students in an online vs. lecture-based computer science course. The participants in the study were all non-traditional students in computer science who were given the option of taking this particular course online or in person. The researchers designed the study with the independent variable as learning environment and the dependent variable was the student's final grade in the class. The findings were that there was no significant difference in final grades (Buerck et al., 2003). There is one caveat to the study, in that the researchers felt that the students who took the course online probably did better in it because they decided on that learning environment voluntarily. Of note, the study is almost a decade old, and online learning technologies have improved vastly in that time, to include teleconferencing as well as integrated online classroom software. However, online learning environment have been proven as appropriate for non-traditional students to thrive (source). Computer science students' participating in online courses performed almost equally to those in the classroom setting. The research did conclude, however, that students who completed courses online probably did as well as their counterparts because they voluntarily enrolled in it.
A study by Maxfield (2008) noted the kinds of lifestyle challenges non-traditional students may face in their quest for higher education. Specifically, Maxfield specifically studied emergency service workers who were going back to school for advanced degrees, but his findings do not seem inherently limited to this particular profession among non-traditional students. There were two specific phenomena that arose in Maxfield's study: the value of education, and life's interruptions. (2008). Each non-traditional student participant ,expressed a belief in the value of education. This belief may be due to students being removed from education long enough to be able to asses its real value. They also realized that education was "important to their careers and to the welfare of their families" (Maxfield, 2008, p#). The students all demonstrated that their attitudes toward learning had changed with experience and maturity; they were driven to succeed and much more focused about achieving their goals.
As a result of the life experience of these nontraditional adult students, education seemed to take on a definite importance and provided a new schema and tool for self motivation along with the benefit of setting an example to other family members. This motivation appears consistent with the literature and true of most nontraditional adult students returning to school after extended periods of living in the world and working in the competitive career environment. The students in this study were also likely to report that their responsibilities to career and families took a toll on their academic progress. According to Maxfield (2008), "these issues appear to hold true for older students attending traditional face-to-face course deliveries as well as those who enroll in the asynchronous online classes; the extant literature on adult learning has made this case" (p. 65).
The down-side of online schooling-students' lives are already busy, so when other areas get busy (like family time, civic, religious activities, etc), time for doing class work is crunched (source). It's easy to procrastinate doing assignments and get behind (source). It's hard to stay involved with the discussion postings if you're a week or two behind the current discussion topic. With the difficulty of adding the load of school to an already busy life, the students have to juggle study time with other responsibilities.
These experiences and perceptions, the value of education and life's interruptions, appear common to all adult students (source). Although they are not specific to the nontraditional adult student taking asynchronous, online classes, they are an important part of the experience of these
There are many different kinds of support services that the non-traditional student needs, and these do not always overlap with services for traditional students. Universities and colleges, in order to help non-traditional students succeed, need to tailor their services for this group's specific needs. As a first step, University administrations and faculty need to avail themselves of the current research describing the particular issues that non-traditional students face. Services in the areas of student activities, counseling, career planning, teaching and learning processes, learning assistance programs, advising, admissions, financial aid, and orientation programs all need to be addressed. Those in charge of planning these programs also need to be aware of the diversity of the non-traditional student population. Each has different needs and, therefore, needs to be served by different programs.
Non-traditional students are most often motivated to pursue a degree because of career advancement desires and self-improvement. (Aslanian & Brickell, 1980; Padula, 1994). Because career concerns are often the most critical, non-traditional students are most likely to avail themselves of career counseling services. Among all the services the university can offer to make the non-traditional student's experience valuable, career counseling is at the top, but it is not the only service students need (Bauman et al., 2004).
According to Noel (1985) commuting students are at particular risk for attrition. A true commuter is one who lives at least 50 miles from school and has not moved from their home to attend school. Commuters, by the nature of their distance relationship with the school, have less commitment to the school as an institution, and re-enrolling year after year can be disruptive and seem like more of a hassle than it is worth.
Ethnic groups represent some of the nontraditional population. Little research has been completed to determine if the needs of this portion of the group differ from other nontraditional students. However it seems reasonable to believe that there are differences in the needs and problems of these nontraditional students (Marlow, 1989). Black students expressed a need for more black faculty; a support system with blacks; and administrators, faculty, and staff who are sensitive to black issues. Hispanics are more likely to say that child care is a problem (Henry, 1985).
Even among the subset of the non-traditional student, there are those who are more non-traditional than others; students in their 50s, 60s and beyond. Advances in medical treatment and science, in addition to a culture of healthy living, people are living longer, healthier lives. Retirement has changed over the past few decades, and often people are looking to continue their education and beginning new careers. The average age of students on campus is increasing and addressing the specific needs of many different ages will become more critical as time goes on (Marlow, 1989).
Research suggests that one misstep universities and colleges need to avoid is segregating older-than-average and non-traditional students into their own distinctive communities on campus. In order to create a positive experience for all students, schools must institute policies and procedures that acknowledge that learners of different developmental stages and ages both benefit by learning side-by-side in an intergenerational setting (Gleazer, 1980).
Noel (1985) found that financial aid programs need to make themselves known to non-traditional students, as they are often eligible for grants, loans, and part-time work on campus to help manage the costs of going back to school, which can be a large source of stress. Non-traditional students need to know that they are also being taken care of by the college - too often people assume that non-traditional students are aware of all the options available to them (Noel, 1985).
Services for Women
Women over the age of 30 comprise one of the largest subsets of non-traditional students. Many women re-enter school at a transition point in their life, varying from getting divorced or becoming widows, their children leaving home, or the need to be employed and assist with the family income. Some women have put off seeking higher education until their parents die or their children are in school full-time (Menson, 1982).
Noel (1985) surmised that when students find success, satisfaction and learning together, persistence is the outcome. This is just as true for nontraditional students as it is for traditional students. Successes in college for the nontraditional students relate to programs and services both in the classroom and on campus. Research on college adjustment must reform college administrative practices and college teaching. Understanding and interpreting the lived experience of nontraditional, adult learners gives a richer and deeper understanding of the perceptions and attitudes of an important and growing demographic within higher education.