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The Age of the Neo-Traditional Student

Mary Lee Schott

The rapid evolution of the “non-traditional” student in higher education presents a situation where it’s time to consider whether we should reframe our assessment of the University structure as it relates to student success. From the campus master plan to the teaching practices, how are Universities addressing the need for making post-secondary education easily accessible for these unique individuals?

Nearly 75 percent of the post-secondary students in the United States are considered “non-traditional,” establishing this as the norm. In 2018, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that because more than half of older students are parents, access to affordable childcare is one of the most important factors in a student/parent’s decision to enroll at a college or university. In fact, according to the same policy group, two-thirds have low incomes, fifty-seven percent work at least 20 hours a week, and forty-four percent enroll in classes part-time. With the ever-increasing diversity, individuality and uniqueness among the needs of these students, it’s time to realize that those who have historically been considered non-traditional—or even more recently, post-traditional—is the new tradition. Universities must cater to the Neo-traditional students.

No longer are these students the outliers, they are a vibrant majority and necessary part of the student body and the current and future state of work. They have very different needs than for which traditional campus infrastructures have prepared. True, ease and convenience have been realized through online classes, however not all necessary curricula are available via this method. Consider the student who is juggling a job, caring for a parent and children, and is required to meet with her team on campus at the 24/7 library. How has the university facilitated the Neo-traditional student who doesn’t live on campus, has limited time to meet, requires child-care (or senior care) and needs to combine a late-night dinner with her studies? Or the one who needs to dash in between meetings during the workday to register for classes? How does the University infrastructure enable and ensure the Neo-traditional student’s success?

No longer are [neo-traditional] students the outliers, they are a vibrant majority and necessary part of the student body and the current and future state of work.

Mary Lee Schott

The Neolithic university structure often doesn’t allow for the flexibility the Neo-traditional student needs to be successful. Many institutions still expect that students will accommodate the educational construct when that notion is quickly becoming null. According to the US Census Bureau, the number of 18-24 year olds has declined and is expected to remain flat through at least 2035. The resultant effect will be an even bigger influx of Neo-traditional students on a campus which offers the outmoded Greek life, shared on-campus housing, and 9-5 M-F office hours.

Some Signs of Change

Post-secondary campuses are realizing that their students are far more diversified than ever before. And their conventional ways of operating are not cutting the mustard when it comes to ensuring the Neo-traditional student success throughout their education and after.

Several universities and community colleges are making bold commitments to their Neo-traditional student body. Amenities such as credits for real-life experiences; special funds to cover emergency expenses; forgiveness of past due balances; and designated Centers which coordinate campus services and group older students with their contemporaries are becoming more prevalent across the United States.  Some student governments now have the representation of parents, pregnant students and veterans giving them a platform from which to voice their unique concerns.

Despite these advances, more can be done. The Neo-traditional student is often re-entering school with low confidence and the absence of technological prowess. The stress of this alone could be enough to dissuade enrollment. However, with greater attention to what this more prevalent student typology needs for success, Universities might realize a greater return on their investment.

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