Nontraditional Older Students
Generally, "nontraditional student" refers to students who are the first generation in their families to attend college; in other instances it is used synonymously with students of color, students with disabilities, or students from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds. This paper discusses changes in the U.S. higher education student population and develops a clear profile of the nontraditional older student by compiling the information and findings from various studies that have specifically targeted this category of student. As an extension of the student profile, the studies are also used to discover what issues and concerns most affect the nontraditional student. The article examines the largest and most common obstacles nontraditional older students encounter when trying to earn a college degree. It concludes by analyzing the most relevant aspects of the educational policies and systems currently in place, points out how these policies are often incompatible with the nontraditional student profile, and makes recommendations for policy adjustments to better complement the needs and problems common to nontraditional students.
Keywords Career Counseling; Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL); Intrinsic Motivation; National Center for Education Statistics (NCES); Nontraditional Student; Telecourse; Traditional Student; Tuition Waiver
Defining "Nontraditional Student"
In educational literature, the term "nontraditional student" is often used so broadly that it can refer to quite different categories of students. The term is sometimes used to refer to students who are the first generation in their families to attend college; in other instances it is used synonymously with students of color, students with disabilities, or students from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds (Bundy & Smith, 2004, ¶ 2). The term is also occasionally used to mean the same as "gifted children" (Setting Students on a new path, 2007, ¶ 2). Because the term has been used to describe so many different groups or categories of students, we should first narrow our definition to focus on what is actually the central definition for "nontraditional student." For the purpose of this paper, the term "nontraditional student" will be limited to describe "those who are older than 24 years of age and who may have dependents, be financially independent, and attend college on a part-time basis" (Bundy & Smith, 2004, ¶ 2).
This definition centers on students who have already been working in full-time jobs, typically for at least a few years, and have decided to re-enter formal education so as to gradually earn a college degree, even as they continue meeting their various responsibilities of work and family. This definition can also include mothers who do not work outside the home because they provide full-time care for children. These women have committed to gradually earning a degree so as to increase their employment opportunities once their children become less dependent. So, a nontraditional student is older than a traditional student and attends school while also working and / or taking care of dependents. Nontraditional students may be full time students, but they are most often part-time students since they usually cannot manage a full-time course load while simultaneously caring for family members or working. However, in the “past few decades, paid employment among college students has become increasingly common,” and this is a trend that may coincide with the growth in the number of nontraditional student enrollments (Taniguchi & Kaufman, 2005, p. 915).
It might seem upon first impression that the above-defined group of students represents a relatively minor portion of the overall number of students attending college today. Surprisingly, some of the educational surveys claim that over half of the nation's students today are aged twenty-five or older, married, or have children - meaning they fit into the nontraditional student category. This has also been a growth trend for several decades. As Taniguchi and Kaufman (2005) note:
. . .while the enrollment of students aged 24 or younger grew by 51 percent between 1970 and 2000, the increase for older students was about three times as large (National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), 2002a). In 1999-2000, 40 percent of all enrollees were in their mid-20s or older, with a large proportion of them attending part time and having dependents (p. 912).
Thus, the number of nontraditional students has grown until it has become either the majority of college students, or very close to the majority, and it seems likely that this trend will continue. Considering that this trend has been increasing for decades, educators, counselors, and educational institutions should endeavor to create an accurate profile of nontraditional students. The first step in doing so is to ask some important questions: what is the typical life situation for nontraditional students, what motivates them, what are their concerns, what needs do they have, and what are their common perspectives on college education?
Profiling the Nontraditional Student: Sample Studies
Chao and Good (2004) performed a qualitative study that they assert yielded a theoretical model of nontraditional college students' perspectives on college education. They also noted that "very little research has investigated the counseling needs of nontraditional students. In fact, the profession has not yet clearly identified the reasons that nontraditional students enroll in college, nor adequately described their perspectives of the college experience" (Chao & Good, 2004, p. 5). This lack of clarifying the motives and common difficulties of nontraditional students was the impetus for their relatively small study (consisting of about fifty participants).
The authors used questionnaires and held lengthy interviews with the nontraditional students in their study, after which they compiled what is essentially a profile of the nontraditional student. Their findings showed that a “dynamic interaction among several factors was central to the participants' perceptions of pursuing college education.” Chao and Good write that “central to the interaction was a sense of hopefulness that participants held toward their decision, struggles, and perceptions about the future” (p. 7). The authors also believe that this core category of hopefulness "critically influenced five other themes: motivation, financial investment, career development, life transition, and support systems" (Chao & Good, 2004, p. 7). Apparently due to their hopefulness, nontraditional students have a tendency to actively manage their education, employment, family, and interpersonal relationships. The authors of the study conclude that nontraditional students also actively integrate their college education into their career development; they conclude:
In this study, some people pursued college education because they 'felt stuck with their current jobs.' Other participants intended to change career goals via college education. They saw their degrees as facilitating career development (Chao & Good, 2004, p. 9).
Many nontraditional students have a very strong career development motive behind their decision to earn a degree. Such a statement may seem obvious; it may seem that all students enroll in order to develop a good career, but we should consider whether there is a relevant difference of profile between nontraditional and traditional students that creates a difference in their motives for attending college. For example, traditional students enter college straight from high school, often have no idea what they want to major in, frequently join fraternities and sororities, and otherwise extensively engage in abundant social lives. This difference may cause traditional students, who are between the ages of 18 and 23, not to be as concerned with career development compared to their older classmates.
A study that Bye, et al. (2007) carried out supports this idea; their study used a larger group consisting of 300 students. The study was carried out in a 2-1 ratio wherein there were twice as many nontraditional students in the study than there were traditional students (Bye et al, 2007, p. 149). The authors observe that, "whereas younger students interacted primarily with peers and in peer-related activities, older students were less involved in campus activities and more likely to be involved in caring for family" (Bye et al, 2007, p. 143). They also noted that a student may have less intrinsic motivation if the student "simply takes on a predetermined role from a script written by others, such as young undergraduates might do when following their parents' desire that they study in a particular field" (Bye et al, 2007, p. 146). The authors' research revealed that nontraditional students had higher levels of intrinsic motivation to learn than did traditional students (Bye et al, 2007, p. 156), and this is probably related to their strongly career-oriented motivations.
In another study, Bauman, Wang, DeLeon, Kafentzis, Zavala-Lopez, and Lindsey (2004) created a questionnaire that requested reasons why the nontraditional student decided to enroll in a college course program; the results correspond to the Chao and Good study: the number one reason given was for the sake of career advancement. The respondents gave specific answers such as "to be more marketable in a competitive job world" and "career burnout after fifteen years" (Bauman et al, 2004, p. 15). These reasons match the Chao and Good study, in which some respondents said they felt stuck in their current jobs. All of these responses indicate just how important career objectives are for nontraditional students.
Two more motivating factors were evident in the Bauman et al. (2004) study, that of "self-improvement," which was the second most frequently given reason, and "family," which was the third most frequently given reason. The Bauman et al. study also ascertains which services the schools should offer as the most beneficial and needed for nontraditional students. Corresponding to the above-described primary motivation of nontraditional students, the most desired service was career-counseling service, with 76% of the survey respondents saying they would either be likely or very likely to use that service. Some of the other highly ranked...
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