President Speaks: Let’s stop talking about ‘non-traditional students’

Education Dive

Dr. Alan Kadish is president of the Touro College and University System.

I would like to correct a significant misnomer in academia. The phrase “non-traditional student” is often used to describe older students, those working full-time and those juggling parenting responsibilities. College marketing materials, as well as depictions in movies, TV and newspapers, conjure up images of energetic 18-year-olds swinging backpacks as they stride through ivy-covered archways into great halls of learning.

The reality is somewhat different. According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics as reported by NPR, this is a more realistic snapshot of today’s college students:

  • One in five is age 30 or older.
  • Half are financially independent from parents.
  • One in four take a year off before starting school.
  • One-quarter is caring for a child.
  • 47% attend college part time at some point.

For this fast-growing cohort of students, upscale gyms with climbing walls, spring break trips to Costa Rica and Greek life are irrelevant. They are not looking for a social life on campus and they are not experiencing independence for the first time when they attend freshman orientation. They often start college with focused academic and career goals and with needs many colleges are unprepared to meet. Rather than referring to them as “non-traditional” I propose we think of them as “the future faces of education.”

Touro College, where I am president, has had a unique opportunity both to educate and learn from these students. Founded in 1970, we serve career-minded individuals of every faith at all ages and stages of their lives. Many of our students have taken off time for gap years between high school and college to pursue studies in areas of interest abroad and in the U.S. Many of our students marry in their early 20s — at younger ages than typical college students. Most have robust social communities rooted near their homes, not on campus.

If higher education is to continue serving as a ladder to financial independence and rewarding careers, we need to make our programs as welcoming to the students of the future as they have been for students in the past.

Traditional structures and schedules need to change. Course schedules should ensure all required courses are available in the evening so students with full-time jobs can attend. Video hookups in the classroom can allow new parents to attend lectures without leaving their infants. Online learning can offer even greater flexibility.

“We need to make our programs as welcoming to the students of the future as they have been for students in the past.”

Mentoring and guidance programs — key components for student success — should be retooled. Older students benefit from counselors who understand their situations, life experiences and goals. Imagine you have small children to feed, a spouse who works full time, your own full-time job and classes for which to study. The pressure can be intense. Your classwork can easily slip down the priority list temporarily. A counselor who understands your situation can make the difference between managing this situation and dropping out. Colleges need to hire and train guidance staff with these students in mind.

Working students frequently arrive at college with pragmatic career goals, built through work experience. They are driven to achieve those goals efficiently, so they can move ahead with their lives and careers. This focused approach can make them valuable role models for other students. Colleges can respond by integrating real world experiences into courses, providing courses directly relevant to careers and offering credit for work experience. They can and should connect them to alumni in their fields.

While responsibility for implementing these strategies falls on the shoulders of faculty members, counselors and others who work directly with students, the larger academic ecosystem needs to adapt as well. For example, accreditation metrics are outmoded if they penalize colleges when students take longer than six years to graduate. They do not acknowledge the myriad reasons students take time off from school.

As educators, we need to celebrate the many assets these students bring to our institutions and give them our full support to build the educations and the lives they choose.