Stop calling them 'non-traditional' students

Colleges need to better accommodate the growing numbers of adult learners

The term "nontraditional student" is somewhat of a misnomer, as today's college student population consists of many adult learners with jobs, families, and responsibilities outside of school, Eric Westervelt reports for NPR's "nprEd." 

After the Great Recession, enrollment growth skyrocketed at colleges and universities. Now, almost half of those enrolled in higher education fall under the nontraditional student category, with one-quarter over the age of 30. Many of these students are entering college for greater opportunities in the midst of economic instability.

Even though so-called nontraditional students are now the norm, few four-year institutions in particular have made necessary accommodations for adult learners. And the label itself is problematic, says Yancey Gulley, an assistant professor at Western Carolina University.

According to Gulley, the term tells students who don't fit the picture of a typical college student "that this place 'is not made for me.' We just keep 'othering' them and reminding them that this is a chance we're giving them, we actually don't think [they] belong here."

That perception is reflected in some of the ways that institutions fail to recognize the needs of adult learners. For example, many of these students need to take courses in the evening, when campus services are unavailable.

"What if they need tutoring help?" Gulley asks. "What if they need to drop by the admissions office to change their program of study? What if they need to meet with financial aid?"

Increasingly, institutions "are having to adapt their policies and practices around these older learners," says Deborah Seymour with the American Council on Education's Center for Education Attainment and Innovation. "They can't isolate themselves from what is slowly becoming more than 50 percent of the student population," she says.

She notes that adult learners tend to face more challenges than their younger counterparts, in terms of tending to their non-academic responsibilities. In addition, she says, they are under more pressure to succeed because they have fewer years left in the workforce. With a rapidly growing adult learner population, Seymour says, colleges need to be adequately prepared for the new normal (Westervelt, "nprEd," NPR, 9/25). 

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