Brandman University President Gary Brahm says the needs of nontraditional students are very different than those of traditional students. And though there is some consensus that nontraditional is the new traditional, many institution leaders are still struggling with how to adjust their business models to accommodate this wave of students on traditional campuses.
A lot of institutions have leveraged their existing brand in order to deliver a traditional education as well as accommodate nontraditional students.
At Brandman, which serves a large military population thanks to its proximity to several military bases around Southern California, Brahm said the board and leadership team is “totally focus[ed] on the needs of nontraditional students.” As a result, 83% of non-first-time, full-time students and 63% of non-first-time, part-time students who enrolled in August 2008 received some type of credential by August 2016, according to U.S. Department of Education data. And Brahm is particularly proud of the school’s 5.5% default rate, which he says is much lower than other schools serving adult students.
When students are coming to campus from the workforce, they no longer have school counselors or family members to help them make decisions, Brahm said, and they may have selected an institution based on an ad. Brandman’s online students get coaching to help them through enrollment and the first six months as they transition on campus, and they are assigned an advisor who follows their progress throughout the matriculation process. If you’re a traditional student, “you know when you’re supposed to register, when you’re supposed to fill out your financial aid forms. Everyone is doing those things at the same time,” Brahm said.
It’s also important to understand why adult students are coming back to campus and provide them some value as they go through their journey and provide them with tangible skills that will help them land promotions, said Brahm.
“The corporate world understands competencies,” he said, adding that competency-based models are one way to ensure students are getting those skills along the way. “It’s not that we’re churning out badges, though we give out some badges, [but] these promotions are really a result of [students] being more successful in their jobs and being able to show that they’re really more advanced.”
Brahm said he hopes because more students are first generation, more employers will start fully funding degree programs as companies like Walmart, Starbucks and Discover recently announced.
Facing challenges 'all the way through'
First-generation students face many of the same challenges adult learners face do. For these students, the lack of family support extends to getting to graduation, and making internship decisions or employment decisions, said Lisa Miles, University of Richmond’s coordinator of first-generation student support. It isn’t that these students’ families don’t want to help; it’s often that they don’t have the knowledge or the emotional capacity to help their their adult children navigate some of the decisions. While some students on campus may be using the word summer as a verb, Miles said, for many first-generation students, summer means getting a summer job.
“You often hear about the first-generation student [needing help] adjusting to college and navigating through campus, but I was surprised by the issues [they face] all the way through,” she said.
For many first-generation learners, stepping into an environment like the University of Richmond is a glaring reminder of how very different their experiences are from those of their classmates. Getting them to ask for help can be a challenge because they don’t want to be reminded of what they don’t have. Miles said it’s important to let first-generation students know that other students ask for what they need, so they shouldn’t be ashamed of doing the same.
Richmond's president, dean of arts and sciences and head of the biology department are all first-generation students. Miles said President Ronald Crutcher makes a point to speak to students and share his story, which goes a long way in making them feel like they are not alone and can be successful.
“Dr. Crutcher shows up, and I invite other first-generation faculty and staff to show up," she said. When students see their deans and professors have come from the same place they’re starting, it makes a difference as students, faculty and staff members look to build community on campus, she added.
Being open about one's background also helps facilitate a culture that makes those faculty and staff members feel more comfortable. Miles said sometimes, the further one gets in his or her career trajectory in academia, it seems there’s a sense these things should not be discussed. Having an environment where those who work at the institution can acknowledge their journey is, in a sense, cathartic.
Meanwhile, Miles and her team hold special sessions on topics, such as studying abroad, living-learning communities and employer relations for first-generation students — issues that are covered for the general student body as well, but which are broken down differently for students who may not have the benefit of discussing them with parents or other adults. There’s an “Adulting 101” class she said that would be good for all types of students, but is especially important for first-generation ones trying to navigate life after college.
Sometimes, it’s difficult for first-generation students, especially those who may have come from lower-income backgrounds, to feel that they belong on a college campus that is dominated by privileged, well-off students. But Miles said she tries to remind students, “It’s really hard to get in here, so if you’re here, you definitely belong here.”