The Non-Traditional Student In The 21st Century

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This chapter reviews relevant studies and literature on the experiences of nontraditional students as they make their way towards the completion of their undergraduate degree. An overview of the characteristics of nontraditional students compared to traditional students is made. Furthermore, the barriers towards completion and the support systems needed are examined for nontraditional female students. Finally, theoretical and empirical literature on barriers experienced and the support systems helpful in overcoming barriers towards completion are presented.

The Non-Traditional Student in the 21st Century

While the higher education system is designed to reflect the needs and experiences of "traditional" students (Choy, 2002), the influx of "non-traditional" students has spurred adjustments within higher education (Bowl, 2001). College recruitments and operations still revolve around the traditional student as evidenced by Web pages, campus newspapers, admissions information, and even administrative hours (Hagedorn, 2005). Studies have even purported to the traditional path toward an undergraduate degree as "exception, rather than the rule" (Horn & Carroll, 1996, p. 14). Nonetheless, despite the fact that mature students aged 25 years old and above are now becoming a common sight in college and university campuses, their concerns are still not properly addressed by higher education institutions (Kilgore & Rice, 2003).

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Studies focusing on the experiences and needs of adult learners and nontraditional students have been conducted since the early 1980s (Cross, 1981; Bean & Metzner, 1985). Despite the empirical attention the subject has gained, operational definitions used in the studies have varied considerably, hence, the lack of a consistent definition of the "nontraditional student" (Bowl, 2001). In the U.S. context, the Department of Education (2002) has defined the nontraditional student as having the following characteristics: 1) delayed enrollment, 2) part-time enrollment, 3) financial independence, 4) full-time employment while enrolled, 5) dependents, 6) single parent, and 7) high school graduation status. Furthermore, Horn and Carroll (1996) placed the "nontraditional" definition along a continuum and suggested that those possessing one of the above-mentioned attributes are considered "minimally nontraditional"; those having two to three attributes are "moderately nontraditional"; and those having four or more attributes are considered "highly nontraditional". For this particular study, the group of interest is the "highly nontraditional group" particularly female, aged over 30 and below 61, with dependents, delayed enrollment in college, and employed full-time while pursuing a college degree.

Both quantitative and qualitative studies on nontraditional students have more or less painted a common picture of some of their experiences. For instance, the entry of older students to higher education is accompanied by several tensions such as logistics dilemma from running a family, problems with access to educational facilities, and feelings of isolation between family responsibilities and academic requirements (Ashcroft & Peacock, 1993). In this regard, mature female students experience a higher degree of tension as they struggle to balance commitment between competing demands of family life, work, and course performance (Powell, 1992). From another perspective, this commitment has been ascribed as a significant predictor to the performance of nontraditional students academically (Bullough & Knowles, 1990).

The entry of mature students into higher education is often an experience filled with anxiety over low school performance (Gardner & Pickering, 1991). Their decision to enroll in undergraduate courses often lead to feelings of threat and insecurity that they will not be successful in their endeavor. Traditional college students are able to direct all their energies toward their coursework and other academic requirements whereas older students, single parents, and those who are multi-taskers cannot commit their time fully. With other responsibilities competing with school for time, energy, and financial resources (Choy, 2002), nontraditional students find themselves facing situational, institutional, and dispositional barriers in their persistence and feeling little or no support from their school (Kilgore & Rice, 2003). Other studies however point out that in terms of preparation and life-skills, nontraditional students fare better than their traditional counterparts (Laing, 2005; Bowl, 2001). Students who enter higher education right after high school graduation often have stereotypical notions about college life - such as the belief that college is academically non-challenging but socially exciting (Laing, 2005). Moreover, traditional students also tend to have skewed expectations of the college environment, often construing the latter as not so different from high school. The fact that "many students (due in part to their previous educational experiences) will have entered higher education without having taken responsibility for their own learning" is often one of the main reasons why attrition rates even among traditional students is also high (Laing 2005, p. 170). This notwithstanding, the level of difficulty experienced by nontraditional students is relatively heavier and deserve special investigation (Pascall & Cox, 1993).

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Studies performed on nontraditional students have suggested that the institutional environment must accommodate their unique needs and circumstances (Bowl, 2001; Bamber & Tett, 2000). Bowl (2001) noted that there is a "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 inability of institutional environments to adapt and make improvements is often a source of frustration and anxiety for nontraditional students (Kilgore, 2003; Bowl, 2001). Bowl (2001) characterized the experiences of British mature women entering higher education as one which results in "a feeling of powerlessness" and a "struggle for personal, academic, financial and emotional survival" (Bowl, 2001, p. 142).

Barriers Experienced by Female Non-Traditional Students

The 1980s was accompanied by an unprecedented rise in the number of nontraditional students in higher education; majority of them were women (Weil, 1986). 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 (Pascall & Cox, 1993). 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 (Bowl, 2001). Weil (1986, 1989) examined the impact of informal learning on females non-traditional students' expectations and experiences of higher education entry. She described the disjunction between the home and early schooling experiences of research participants and how this disjunction may also be felt by those moving into higher education. According to her, entering higher education can be a shock, accompanied by a sense of personal powerlessness. Evidence from other research with non-traditional students, indicates that higher education is experienced in different ways than by standard, 18 year-old entrants (Macdonald & Stratta, 1998; Pascall & Cox, 1993). It is seen initially, at any rate, as a struggle for personal, academic, financial and emotional survival. As they go along the educational journey, they face various institutional, situational, and dispositional barriers (Kilmore & Rice, 2003).

Situational Barriers

Family, job, and finances all play a part in determining situational barriers. Household income, the number of dependents in the household, and the financial aid received by the students are all variables that determine the persistence rate of adult students (Carney-Crompton & Tan, 2002). Although other variables can be negotiated, income levels cannot. The basic needs of the family, like food and rent or mortgage, take a priority over educational expenditures. Time and energy spent trying to make ends meet, for example, can drain the most dedicated student. Additionally, parents feel guilt about being unavailable when their children need them with mothers of children younger than thirteen feeling the most role conflict (Terrell, 1990). The age of the children may well determine the persistence of women; those with older children may persist to graduation, whereas women with younger child may interrupt or stop their education (Carney-Crompton & Tan, 2002). Both a blessing and a curse, employment may have a positive psychological effect on adults, but at the cost of most of their spare time. In addition, nontraditional students may have to make career compromises for the sake of both their families and their academic work (Terrell, 1990), leading to health and financial consequences.

Women experience a disproportionate burden of household tasks and caregiver responsibilities (Carney-Crompton & Tan, 2002) when attending college. Managing multiple roles may be a source of stress for nontraditional female students. Parents may feel guilty about being unavailable when their children need them, with mothers of children under thirteen reporting the most conflict (Terrell, 1990). Women with older children may persist to graduation, whereas those with younger children may interrupt their education to fulfill family responsibilities (Carney-Crompton & Tan, 2002; Home, 1998). Jacobs and King (2002) named several reasons why nontraditional females over age 25 are at-risk of dropping out. Part-time attendance poses the biggest risk for older students. Nontraditional female students without children and attending college full-time have about the same chance of completing college as those in their early twenties. Jacobs and King (2002) stated that "older women, enrolled part time, who delayed entry into college, and who have become mothers are much less likely to complete their degrees" (p. 222).

Dispositional Barriers

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Dispositional barriers are intrapersonal and, consequently, much harder to define. Full-time students report role overload, and student, family, and job demands all contribute to role contagion (Home, 1998). Many full-time students are unable to full anticipate the effects of their combined role demands. In contrast to jobs with fixed hours, student and family demands never seem to end. Increases in roles, demands, and time conflicts are associated with high stress, anxiety, and depression for adult female students (Carney-Crompton & Tan, 2002). Because adult students may never find a cohort of similar students with whom they can connect socially or emotionally, support from family and friends is essential when adults are making the decision to stay in school or to drop out. Carney-Crompton and Tan (2002) report that traditional-aged students have more supportive individuals available in their lives than do adult students. Nontraditional students have little or no time to make connections on a college campus. One caring person who answers questions and offers advice may be viewed as a life preserver in a sea of stress and confusion; however, it may be difficult for older adults to find a suitable mentor. Furthermore, how nontraditional learners construct their experiences are contextualized (Bamber & Tett, 2000).

Institutional Barriers

Institutional barriers are systematic barriers that exclude adults or make it difficult for them to successfully navigate through their higher education (Kilgore & Rice, 2003). Several institutional barriers have been documented in empirical studies related to nontraditional studies and adult learning. For instance, in a study focused on evaluating the needs and experiences of University of Wisconsin Stout, a fundamental institution barriers was that "schools are not structured to accommodate adult students" (Droege, 2006, p. 32). For example, office and class hours that do not meet the needs of students who work and/or care for family members. Adult students may show up for evening and weekend classes and find darkened building whose only lighting is the classroom for the course. The business, financial aid, academic advising, and other student support offices have been closed since five o'clock. This example illustrates a lack of not only understanding about the needs of adult learners but also awareness of the students themselves. Even the way assignments are given in classes might be considered an institutional barrier and unusually stressful for nontraditional students; for example, group work. Using small groups in student cooperative learning enterprises has become a major trend in American higher education (Cheng & Warren, 2000). Zepke and Leach (2005) also identified the failure of institutional culture to adapt to the behavior of nontraditional students. Universities overlook the fact that multi-role students have little time to achieve academic success and are constrained in terms of time and energy to access tutorial services or consultation designed for traditional students. Furthermore, one of the five most significant reasons why nontraditional students withdraw from university was perceived incompatibility between the institution and needs of the student (York et al., 2009) and dissatisfaction with institutional resources (York & Longden, 2008).

Levels of Support

Studies performed on nontraditional students have highlighted the importance of support systems to facilitate persistence and ensure completion in higher education (Bowl, 2001; Kilmore & Rice, 2003). Aside from the academic and classroom-based support that nontraditional students could obtain (Thomas & Hixenbaugh, 2006), studies have also shown how out-of-classroom social integration is significant in bolstering school persistence in multi-role students (Larotta, 2009; Harvey & Drew, 2006).

Institutional Support

Several types of institutional support may support persistence among non-traditional students. Some forms of student support may be academic support, pastoral, support, financial information and advice, or skills development. These types of support may be delivered by academic staff, professional staff or offices, peers or student unions (Warren, 2001). The availability of personal tutoring is crucial in establishing a relationship between students and the institution, and providing a first point of contact (Thomas & Hixenbaugh 2006). Another type of institutional support to accommodate non-traditional students is curriculum development. For multi-role students, improving curriculum is central to how the institution interacts with students so that the process of leaning, teaching, course content, and evaluation fit their circumstances (Thomas, Jones, & May, 2002). In UK studies, some adjustments to the curriculum include "active learning and teaching strategies, formative assessment, relevant course content, integrated personal tutoring and study support, and flexible learning" (Thomas et al., 2002, p. 35).

Efforts aimed at improving student retention have also focused on facilitating student engagement in the classroom context. From designing class discussions to teacher-centered approaches, studies have supported the shift towards student-centered learning (Bamber & Tett, 2001). From didactic approaches, it has been recommended that educators gear learning toward the interactive method in order to foster inclusion and avoid making other students (e.g. non-traditional students) like outsiders (Thomas et al., 2002).

Another proposal to facilitate student persistence and academic success especially among at-risk groups is active learning which is "associated with experiential, problem-based and project-based learning, and other forms of collaborative learning, and less reliance on the large lecture format" (Thomas et al., 2002, p. 36). This type of learning involves the following features (Boud & Feletti, 1998):

Using stimulus material to help students discuss an important problem, question or issue;

Presenting the problem as a simulation of professional practice or a real-life situation;

Appropriately guiding students' critical thinking and providing limited resources to help them;

Learn from defining and attempting to resolve a given problem; having students work co-operatively as a group, exploring information in and out of class;

With access to a tutor who knows the problem well and can facilitate the group's learning process;

Getting students to identify their own learning needs and appropriate use of available resources;

Reapplying this knowledge to the original problem and evaluating their learning processes. (p. 2)

Another learning approach proposed by Tinto (2000) is the establishment of "learning communities" to facilitate student engagement on an academic and social level. One example of implementing this approach is to register students for the same, assign students similar topics, and allow students to form their own self-support groups that aim to provide each other academic and social support.

Non-institutional Support

Aside from the support systems that are provided by the institution and members of the academe, non-institutional support is also crucial in facilitating persistence among nontraditional students. Nontraditional students need opportunities to interact with faculty, staff and peers regularly. Droege (2006) explained that that faculty and staff should make themselves more available to students who may have questions or need extra help with assignments. Another problem is the lack of access to consultation and the absence of forums where students can obtain answers to their questions regarding coursework or academic life in general. Departmental faculty and staff should participate in the monthly student forums to answer questions that students may have. Monthly student forums also provide an opportunity for peer interaction among students (Bowl, 2001).

Family has been identified as the primary source of support for nontraditional female students (Mello, 2001). To facilitate social integration within and among peers, academic programs may attempt to create a family atmosphere within the program. A family atmosphere has to be created in every class to build a sense of community among students. The thought of completing two years of coursework individually or as a cohort may be overwhelming for some students. Students have to complete courses one at a time and may need the support of others to do so. Communities are the contexts in which people connect with each other. When nontraditional students feel connected to a place, they tend to invest in their learning (Larrotta, 2009).

Theoretical Framework on Non-Traditional Students' Retention

Based on the literature reviewed, this study incorporates two conceptual models (Cross, 1981; Donaldson & Graham, 1999) in order to develop a theoretical framework that will examine how nontraditional female students complete their journey towards their college degree. More specifically, this study is concerned with identifying the barriers experienced by these students and in understanding how differing levels of support was helpful in overcoming such barriers.

Cross (1981) identified barriers that adult learners experience when they enter higher education. These barriers include institutional, situational, and dispositional areas. Cross' (1981) categorization will be used to develop a theoretical framework for this study. Situational barriers are those that "arise from one's situation or environment at a given point" (p. 12). Institutional barriers refer to "practices and procedures that exclude or discourage adults from participating in organized learning activities" (p. 13). Dispositional barriers are "attitudes and self-perceptions about one's self as a learner" (p. 15).

As framework for identifying institutional and non-institutional support systems that contribute to persistence and completion among non-traditional students, this study derives inspiration from Tinto's (1975) Interactionalist Theory, which after many revisions concluded that the level of student integrant is the primary predictor of success for adult learners. Tinto's theory suggests that the degree of the student's social integration in the campus community influences the level of commitment during the academic journey and thus the likelihood of successfully completing that journey.

Tinto's theory however is limited only to traditional students located in residential academic settings and may not be valid in understanding the needs of non-traditional students (Bean & Metzner, 1985; Donaldson, Graham, Kasworm, & Dirkx, 1999). Donaldson and Graham's (1999) model of college outcomes for adults proposed a framework to examine and assess the key elements affecting the learning of undergraduate nontraditional students. The model takes into consideration the adult's preexisting conditions and motives, cognition, classroom engagement, influences of real-life experience, and the outcomes that they observe and experience as a result of college experiences (Donaldson et al., 1999). The model "draws on the work of Kasworm (1995) who investigated adults' experiences and outcomes from undergraduate education". The model examines the relationships among six major elements related to adults' undergraduate collegiate experiences: (a) Prior Experience & Personal Biographies, (b) Psychosocial and Value Orientations, (c) Adult's Cognition, (d) the Connecting Classroom, (e) the Life-World Environment, and (f) the Outcomes.

Two of these elements are particularly significant to the present study: Connecting Classroom and Life-World Environment. The Connecting Classroom is the central avenue for social engagement and for negotiating meaning for learning. Adults use the classroom to define the separation between academic and life-world knowledge structures (schemata). They use academic knowledge structures to illuminate and elaborate existing life-world structures and transform both real-world and academic knowledge structures into new, integrative structures and meaning. For nontraditional students, the classroom defines the college experience (Kasworm, 1997). The classroom serves as the pivotal hinge with adults utilizing their various roles in life such as student, worker, citizen, and family member to make meaning of their college experience (Kasworm, 1997; Donaldson & Graham, 1999). The Life-World Environment encompasses current work, family, and community situations and settings or the different roles and contexts in which adults work and live. Adults have out-of-class social settings that support their entrance or return to higher education; individuals in these settings include family members, coworkers, supervisors, and community members. These levels of support can detract from or enhance the elements of the psychosocial and value orientations component when adults engage in collegiate experiences (Donaldson & Graham, 1999).