The traditional college campus is built for traditional students: recent high-school graduates who want to ease into adult life and prepare themselves for a career (plus have fun while they’re doing it).
But those “traditional” students may actually be a minority. According to a December 2017 report from the American Council on Education, as much as 60 percent of enrolled undergraduates may be post-traditional learners: those who are older, work full time, are financially independent, or are connected with the military.
Whether you call them “post-traditional learners, “nontraditional students,” or “working learners,” their numbers are growing. And while many of these students have completed some college, the path to a degree is uncertain and riddled with obstacles.
“Navigating this complex human capital development process to help post-traditional
learners earn a credential is a must for colleges and universities in an era of heightened
accountability, with diminished public support and an intensifying focus on outcomes,” urge the authors of the ACE report. What do college administrators need to know in order to better serve these students?
The number of nontraditional students is increasing dramatically.
While year-to-year enrollment fluctuates, by 2026 projections estimate that 8.8 million undergraduates over the age of 25 will be enrolled at U.S. colleges and universities. That’s up from 8.1 million in 2015, and 6.3 million in 2000. Who are these post-traditional students? According to 2011-12 numbers (the latest available)…
- 70 percent were employed while enrolled
- 45 percent were working full time while enrolled
- 60 percent were women
- 44 percent were non-white
- 48 percent had dependents
- 26 percent were single parents
To understand post-traditional students, look at their priorities.
Adult learners have the same goals as traditional incoming freshmen: to get a better job, to earn a degree or credential, and to achieve personal enrichment. Yet there’s an important difference. While traditional freshmen considered education to be their main focus, post-traditional learners who were working saw themselves as employees first and students second. When they have children to support or other responsibilities, the pursuit of a degree can fall to third in the priority list.
For post-traditional students, the economic stakes — and potential — are huge.
There are about 36 million Americans who are 25 or older and have some college education but no degree, the ACE report points out. Of this number, 86 percent have gone through at least one year of college; 13.8 million of those already have two years of college under their belts.
That means “if everyone in the United States 25 years or older with some college but no degree earned an associate degree it would result in an additional $111.6 billion in after-tax income, and an additional $43.2 billion in tax revenue, all in one year,” the study authors say. Even though it describes a hypothetical situation, that’s a staggering number. Poverty, Medicaid enrollment and unemployment would also decrease.
Adult learners represent a significant opportunity for colleges and universities.
American institutions of higher education have now seen six straight years of declining enrollments. Interestingly, most of the slide in 2017 was attributed to a 13-percent decrease in adult student enrollment, but traditional student enrollment decreased as well.
To bolster enrollment, colleges have been recruiting international students as well as rural American students. They should seek out post-traditional students as well, the ACE study contends. Targeted marketing is important — if a college’s online presence and recruitment materials focus exclusively on the softer side of college life, they’ll lose adult students’ interest.
One key to increasing adult student enrollment: more flexible policies.
Universities need to ease the transfer of credits for post-traditional learners who have attended college in the past. An increasingly popular approach is competency-based education, which awards credits to adult students based on their professional experience and competencies. Another approach is the formation and expansion of higher ed consortia, which make it simpler for transfer students to continue their progress toward a degree without losing hard-earned credits.
Universities also need to examine the ways they serve students to find out if they’re unthinkingly excluding post-traditional learners. Are all campus offices closed in the evening, when working students attend class? Do course offerings fit adult students’ needs? Jacksonville University in Florida, for example, offers intensive eight-week courses that suit motivated (and time-starved) adult learners. “We start with the fundamental premise that we don’t treat adult learners as monolithic. They come from a variety of different places in their lives,” Margaret Dees, Jacksonville’s senior vice president of enrollment management and communications, tells University Business.
Jacksonville University offers online classes for post-traditional students, but has also retained classroom learning. “Even where we’re online, we try to keep it local,” Dees says. “Your best and highest success with adult learners is going to be locally, because they know you and they trust your reputation.”
One last piece: colleges should eliminate the very concept of a “non-traditional” student, Needham Yancey Gulley, an assistant professor of higher education student affairs at Western Carolina University, argues in Inside Higher Ed. Labeling these learners as different conveys the message that they’re not supposed to be in college, he says: “Those of us who work in higher education should realize that there no longer is a nontraditional student or, at the very least, we need to revise the definition of what constitutes one.”
For a detailed analysis of the needs and goals of post-traditional students, read the full ACE report: “The Post-Traditional Learners Manifesto Revisited.”