- More than half of college students fit the “nontraditional” mold, and are older than 24, married, are in the military or veterans, have children, work full-time or are financially independent. A new study from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, notes that within this group, 55% of women, as well as 55% of minorities, enrolled in college are considered nontraditional. About 72% of them live in or near poverty, and most have no financial resources to devote to college expenses.
- Just one out of three of these students is like to graduate within six years, so viewing higher education policies and programs through the lens of independent students, with their often complex schedules and family or life responsibilities, is crucial to increasing college access and success, the study notes.
- The authors recommend tracking data on these students to pinpoint interventions and supports, and structuring any outcomes-based institutional funding policies to measure outcomes broken out by gender, race/ethnicity, and for independent students separately.
This report is not the first to recognize that to help these students reach graduation, they must first understand their unique needs and then create specialized support services to meet those needs. Courtney Hittepole, of the University of Denver, suggests institution leaders work to create flexibility in time and class location for students, including expanding opportunities for evening and online courses. These students also may benefit from opportunities to take courses at their own pace, whether accelerated or extended.
Faculty also have an important role to play. According to Hittepole, nontraditional students often tell surveyors that sensitivity from faculty would be of great help, with an understanding from professors that families, jobs or other responsibilities may get in the way of attendance requirements. Faculty members also can bridge cultural and social gaps by demonstrating they value the life experience, stories and cultural backgrounds of these students. By providing a space for nontraditional students to share their stories, faculty members can make a huge impact on students' ability to feel included on campus.
Leaders may also consider adding on-campus spaces for nontraditional students, including groups or clubs specifically for them. Affordable on-campus childcare and programming that is inclusive to children and families is also helpful, though many campuses have retreated away from childcare centers in favor of other amenities which tend to target the traditional residential student demographic.
School administrators also must proactively help nontraditional students see that their financial needs are met.
Low-income and first-generation students often don’t understand financial aid or how it works, according to a report by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. Schools should send clear, understandable information about financial aid, making sure letters clearly state the amount of aid the student is receiving and which are gifts or need to be paid back. Administrators should establish clear policies regarding financial aid eligibility requirements, and school staff should remind students periodically about requirements and deadlines, the foundation says. Schools also should give students a better estimate of non-tuition and living costs.
Schools also could consider integrating financial aid and social services. Public programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program; the Women, Infants and Children Program and the Earned Income Tax Credit may provide an important source of financial support for students and keep them in school – if they are aware of the programs.
Colleges can further help by offering vouchers to help students buy books and food at campus stores or dining halls; emergency loans; grants that may or may not be tied to criteria related to academic standing; or grants to cover outstanding balances so students can graduate.
As enrollment of nontraditional students continues to grow, college administrators must start offering services they may not have historically provided if they hope to best meet the needs of those attending their institutions.