Today's Non-Traditional Student: Challenges to Academic Success and Degree Completion

By Caleb Grabowski Et. Al.
2016, Vol. 8 No. 03 | pg. 2/2 |


Academic success among nontraditional students appears to be correlated with several biological, psychological, and social factors. Nontraditional students are more likely to leave school due to conflicting responsibilities (work, parenting, caring for an elderly parent), or because of a lack of support from their home educational institution (Eppler, Carsen-Plentl, & Harju, 2000). Nontraditional students are less likely to complete their degree programs, and have lower attrition rates compared to traditional students (Taniguchi & Kaufman, 2005).

While nontraditional students constitute a significant portion of postsecondary schools’ consumers, institutions have not sufficiently accommodated the needs of this population. Many higher education institutions implement policies such as open admissions and part-time enrollment to attract nontraditional students, yet a discrepancy in degree attainment between traditional and nontraditional students remains (Taniguchi & Kaufman, 2005). In order to address the discrepancy, postsecondary institutions must acknowledge the factors that influence the success of their growing populations. Additionally, institutionalized practices should be adjusted to address factors that negatively impact nontraditional students.

Implications for Higher Education Institutions

The findings from this literature review have many implications for higher education institutions. Role conflict among nontraditional students encourages selection of part-time academic schedules. Part-time enrollment presents significant challenges for students, including lack of financial aid, less opportunities to connect with staff and fellow students, and longer degree completion time. Thus, it would behoove postsecondary institutions to present options that either facilitates full time enrollment or addresses the challenges created by part-time enrollment.

Flexible Course Options

Providing students with flexible course options may increase retention rates, full time enrollment, and shorter degree completion durations. Online, weekend, evening, accelerated, and hybrid (split between in-person and online classes) courses allow students to fit their academic career into their already packed schedules (Taylor, Dunn & Winn, 2015). The traditional course schedule model of predominantly morning and afternoon courses that meet two to three times per week over the course of sixteen weeks does not complement the lifestyles of most nontraditional students.

Support Services

Nontraditional students note a lack of support from their peers, faculty members, and family friends, as a barrier to academic success (Jeffreys, 2007). Institutions may opt to provide counseling, academic, and career services with evening hours and online services.

Improved Financial Aid

Nontraditional students report finances as a significant barrier to their academic success (Jeffreys, 2007). Financial aids programs such as work-study allow low income students to gain work skills while earning income for educational expenses. Scholarships and grants exclusive to nontraditional students increases funds made available to that segment of the student population, thus more opportunities arise for degree completion and enrollment.

Academic Credit for Work and Life Experience

Many nontraditional students maintain part-time or full-time employment while enrolled in college. The vast majority of accredited colleges and universities adhere to the Council for Adults and Experiential Learning (2015), which states academic credit should only be rewarded for work and life experience if the student demonstrates they have acquired practical and theoretical knowledge from said experience. This requirement may present a barrier for most students seeking academic credit for work experience; however, giving the students the option may be beneficial to those who choose to take advantage of it.

Implications for Faculty

Despite the need for more flexibility in modes of course instruction and academic support, faculty members may be hesitant to move away from the traditional model of course scheduling and delivery (Hurst, 2015). Institutions may consider providing professional development programs to improve use of technologic resources for course instruction (Elliott, Rhoades, Jackson & Mandernach, 2015).

A possible option for higher education institutions seeking additional faculty members to assist with meeting the needs of nontraditional students are the hiring of adjunct faculty members skilled in online teaching (Adams & Dority, 2005). Skilled adjunct faculty may assist with teaching online and hybrid courses, academic advising, and office hours that extend beyond the traditional hours.


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