Nontraditional Students are the New Traditional Students

nontraditional students

“Will I fit in?” “Can I actually do college-level work?” “How will I balance all of my responsibilities?” These are typical concerns expressed by college students of all ages. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), 8.4 million adult learners were enrolled in higher education in 2010 and their enrollment is expected to reach 10.3 million by 2021. Adult learners will constitute over 41% of postsecondary students in the next five years. By that time, will adult learners still be described as “nontraditional students” or will they be the “new-traditional” students?

The adult learner is defined as “…someone 25 years of age or older involved in postsecondary learning activities” (Voorhees & Lingenfelter, 2003). Many adult learners share some of the seven characteristics of non-traditional students as described by NCES (2013):

• Have delayed enrollment into postsecondary education
• Attend part time
• Are financially independent of parents
• Work full time while enrolled
• Have dependents other than a spouse
• Are a single parent
• Having a GED or high school equivalent certificate

These characteristics can bring both assets and challenges as adult students tackle collegiate demands.

In my experience, nontraditional students can be more emotionally mature and better equipped to handle academic stressors. Their work experience often serves as a foundation for the applied knowledge gained from classwork. Frequently, adult students are extremely motivated to earn their degrees because they are focused on goal attainment, not just for themselves, but also for their families. These assets need to be brought to the forefront rather than focusing on the variety of obstacles or challenges faced by some adult learners.

Whether the demands come from work, family, socioeconomic, or learning challenges, adult students are persisting in higher education (Reed, 2005). Research by the Lumina Foundation highlights factors that influence adult learners’ access, persistence, and achievement in higher education. The number one factor is “…the availability of online courses and resources” (Adult Learners, 2007). Online education expands access, allows for flexibility, and supports students’ out-of-school lives.

It is not enough to just offer online courses for adult learner success, however. These courses must address the unique needs of adult learners. Malcolm Knowles coined the term, “androgogy” to describe the adult equivalent of “pedagogy”—educating children (Atherton, 2013). Adult learning theory identifies six conditions under which adults learn best:

1. Adults feel a need to learn and have input into the what, why, and how they will learn.
2. The learning situation relates to past experiences, and these experiences are used as a resource for learning.
3. What is to be learned relates to the adult’s developmental changes.
4. Adults’ learning styles are taken into account.
5. The learning environment is non-threatening and encourages freedom to experiment and take risks.
6. The learner’s ability to take risks is compatible with the type of learning situation (NWREL, 1999).

As I review this list, I think about Fern, Ted, and Betsy—three adult students I know who are courageous, determined, and hail from a broad spectrum of backgrounds and experiences. Fern, in her mid-70’s, enrolled in a poetry class to keep her mind busy and her soul full, as she told me. She was always prepared for class, had completed all of her readings (and then some!), and enjoyed utilizing the new technology that made learning so much more accessible. A retired high school librarian, Fern had a lot to contribute in class and frequently “helped” the instructor teach the class. She liked the opportunity to have input on what, why and how she and the other students learned poetry. She also appreciated the faculty member’s willingness to allow her to bring in past experience and knowledge to contribute to learning environment.

Ted is 25 years old, a single parent of two preschool-aged children, struggling to earn his degree to make a better life for his kids. He is majoring in Construction Management and enjoys the practical nature of this degree, which fits his learning style and relates to his current employment as a construction worker. Ted has created a solid support system which includes family, financial aid, a virtual study group of other working adults, and a supportive employer who sees Ted’s potential and encourages Ted to apply his learning in the workplace and the classroom.

Betsy is a military veteran, returning to school to “retool” and earn a degree to change careers. The online classroom environment is critical for Betsy’s learning. Prior to enrolling online, she was easily frustrated with the younger students on campus who took their education for granted, skipped class, or were just plain immature. At the same time, she was often intimidated to share her thoughts and perspectives for fear of being wrong and feeling vulnerable in front of people she might have been in charge of while in the military. In one of her online courses, her faculty member encouraged the entire class to take risks and respect one another’s experiences and perspectives. This helped Betsy feel more comfortable and connect with the material and her classmates.

As nontraditional students like Betsy, Ted and Fern continue to become part of the mainstream, colleges and universities must adapt to meet their needs. At Colorado State University, we are striving to create a favorable educational atmosphere for adult learners. CSU’s online programs make it possible for busy working adults to not only access quality education, but to have the flexibility to study in ways that work best for them.

If you’re thinking about going back to school, remember you’re not alone in this. Now start exploring your education options!

Adult Learners in Higher Education: Barriers to Success and Strategies to Improve Results.
(2007). Employment and Training Administration Occasional Paper 2007-03. Lumina
Foundation Report.

Atherton, J. S. (2013). Learning and teaching; Knowles’ andragogy: an angle on adult learning. From

Nontraditional Undergraduates (2013). National Center for Education Statistics.

Northwest Regional Education Laboratory Report on Adult Learners (1999). What is it about
adult learners? Out of Print.

Reed, S. (2005, Winter). Learning for life: In many ways and for myriad reasons, adults are
heading back to class. Lumina Foundation Focus. 3-22.

Voorhees, R. A. & Lingenfelter, P. E. (2003). Adult learners and state policy. A Joint

Publication of State Higher Education Executive Officers and the Council for Adult and
Experiential Learning.