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A Nontraditional Definition of Nontraditional Students

Becky Morehouse

Becky Morehouse

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For decades, higher education has used a very traditional definition of nontraditional students. Most often, it is simply translated as “older.”

We have all learned, however, that labels often mask as much as they reveal, and confuse as much as they clarify.

To label today’s nontraditional student as “older” does both them, and us, a great disservice.

While the students we increasingly find in our physical and virtual classrooms can be older, they are so much more.

They are jugglers; often juggling work and school, or work, school, and families. To complicate things, they may be active duty. They may be deployed. Or they may be a veteran.

While they may love the idea of learning, they are highly motivated by learning outcomes (get a job, get a better job, secure a promotion). They see a degree or certificate as a means to an end and not the end itself.

Their support network for attending college is often precarious. Spouses may not value the necessary investment (time and money). Or bosses. Or parents. Or children.

It is interesting that none of the definitions of nontraditional address issues of academic ability or intellect. Nontraditional students are just as smart and just as able as more traditional-age students. Add a big dose of life experiences and you have someone who brings a rich tapestry to the classroom.

What really sets nontraditional students apart is not age, but circumstance. Circumstances that often conspire to thwart their going, or going back, to college. Finances too often come up short. Work schedules change. Child care unravels. Cars don’t start. For many nontraditional students, life intercedes, and sometimes overwhelms.

So what does this all mean for the adult recruiter?

First, see your nontraditional students as people first. They are not a homogenous group, but rather heterogeneous people who have been grouped.

Second, be gracious and thoughtful. Many nontraditional students have a history of being overlooked, ignored, underappreciated, and even taken advantage of. They are wary of systems and processes that focus on them jumping through more hoops.

Third, don’t just give lip service to meeting their needs through customized programs. Instead, pursue opportunities to meet their needs through customized programs.

And finally, celebrate nontraditional students. Value them for their life and professional experience, for the contributions they are eager to make, and for the opportunities that are before them. They are so much more than someone who is merely older.

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