A student graduates high school, goes on to college, completes his or her degree in four years, and then either continues to grad school or enters the workforce.

by Shelley Seale

That is what the education-to-career path has traditionally looked like — but today’s typical higher education student is just as likely to be older when they enter (or return to) university, working while in school, a parent, a first-generation student — or any combination of these. Student demographics have changed rapidly over the last couple of decades. Consider these statistics:

  • More than 47 percent of people entering college are over 25 years old, and 40 percent of those are over 35.
  • Around 4.3 million undergraduate students are parents. About 55 percent of students who are also mothers are single parents, and 44 percent of student parents also work full time.
  • About 40 percent of undergraduates and 76 percent of graduate students work at least 30 hours a week.
  • Up by more than 15 percentage points in the last 20 years, Hispanic Americans now attend college at a rate equal to the national average.
  • Nearly a third (30 percent) of all entering freshmen are the first in their families to attend college.

In our recent article, Your Typical College Student Has Changed—Why Haven’t College Policies, Kimberly Yavorski looks at these changing demographics at a deeper level, also presenting the argument that higher education policies, particularly around admissions, must evolve to meet the needs of today’s student body.

I was one of those non-traditional students. When I enrolled at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas in the fall of 2003 I was a 37-year-old single mother, who was also working full-time.

After graduating high school in 1984, I was eager to enter the workforce and start my career. I began a full-time job in real estate, while also enrolling in college courses at both the local junior college as well as the University of Texas at Arlington. Over the next ten years I sporadically took college courses when I could fit them in, but it was far from a priority, and I was far from obtaining a degree. I got married, had a baby, got divorced.

Fast forward to 2002, and I moved to Austin with my then 12-year-old daughter. It was a new chapter in my life, and part of that transition consisted of my desire to pivot from my real estate career into journalism. I had always loved school and loved learning, and I still wanted that college degree. Even more, I wanted to college experience.

A new type of university

I found out about St. Edward’s New College program, specifically geared toward adult learners who are returning to complete their degrees. The flexible program offered a mix of typical on-campus daytime classes, as well as night, weekend, and online courses. It also provided a great deal of assistance and advising to help its students obtain prior credits from other institutions — many times, like in my case, from multiple institutions. And, I received help with traversing the “financing college” landscape and obtaining scholarships and loans, without which I could never have afforded university.

The New College program also offered a unique “portfolio” aspect, which would give college credit for prior life and work experiences. Students could put together a comprehensive portfolio meant to demonstrate complete knowledge of a specific course, to obtain credit for that course without taking it. This program also allowed military veterans to earn a quality education and credit for service.

It seemed the perfect fit for me: I could take a combination of campus courses (whether day, night, or weekend), along with online courses. Furthermore, I could more easily get credit for both my prior hopscotch college experiences and my significant work/life experience.

The New College program at St. Edward’s is one of many around the country that does this right, and recognized early on that around half of today’s college students are not the typical 18-year-old, straight out of high school student.

Meeting the needs of non-traditional students

St. Edward’s English professor Ramsey Fowler said that New College was intended to have flexibilities for students. “Adults sometimes have lives outside the university that are very complicated, and ones they have to manage while going to school.”

The average age of a New College student  about 36, and several of these students are seeking to complete their degree for job security, promotion and to better provide for their families. Fowler also said that grandparents have returned to school in hopes of being a role model for their grandchildren.

Retired New College professor Danney Ursery said, “The better students seem to always get to know the faculty, and not just know them as scholars, but as human-beings.”

Peirce College in Philadelphia is another institution geared towards non-traditional students who are considered adult-learners. Peirce was one of the earliest providers of comprehensive online degree programs, and students who work full-time may find advantages in the accelerated evening and weekend coursework.

Returning adult student

Tara Broadie is a Peirce College 2018 graduate, who returned to finish her college degree after 20 years working in healthcare.

Fresno Pacific University of California is another that offers education opportunities for many different types of learning and degree-track needs. This school is known to have a generous balance of on-campus, off-site, and online courses for the adult learner requiring a self-designed degree pace; this accommodating structure for learning makes it a great college for non-traditional students looking for a top-notch degree that can balance with full-time work, a family, or other life scenarios.

The Fresno Pacific website states: “We understand that it’s not easy as an adult student coming back to school to finish your degree. You’ve got a busy life and a lot of responsibilities.”

For people needing that type of flexibility and understanding — rather than trying to be forced into the mold of a traditional college path that doesn’t easily work for non-traditional students — this type of approach often makes the difference between whether or not an individual will complete their studies and obtain a degree; perhaps, for many, whether they will even enroll at all.

“A traditional-age student and a nontraditional student are getting the same degree, but in my opinion the nontraditional student has to work exponentially harder, because they’re getting pulled in so many different directions,” said R. Lee Viar IV, president of the Maryland-based nonprofit the Association for Nontraditional Students in Higher Education.

Speaking to U.S. News & World Report, Viar said the differences come down to a separate set of challenges and responsibilities that nontraditional students have.

changing student demographics

Click the image to see the full infographic of “5 Changing Demographics in Higher Education” from Notre Dame of Maryland University.

The University of Wyoming has a Non-Traditional Student Council, which aims to give nontraditional students a voice on campus. James Wheeler, project coordinator for the Associated Students of the University of Wyoming, observed that non-traditional students lack the same access to extracurricular activities that their traditional-age peers enjoy, and encourages them to get involved in campus life in some way to get that sense of belonging.

The University of Richmond, an institutional member here at CHEL, has a Student Government Association at its School of Professional Studies designed to do just that: involve non-traditional students in campus activities. The Association organizes events throughout the academic year that are designed to engage SPCS students with each other as well as with the general student body community.

Succeeding on the non-traditional student path

From my experience, if I had not found the New College program, I would likely have either not pursued the completion of my degree, or I would have continued the scatter-shot approach I had taken earlier in life.

I was able to gain credit through the Portfolio program for several courses, including Magazine Writing, English Composition, and several business courses; as well as credit for Service Learning through my extensive volunteer and community service work.

Just as importantly, I was able to thoroughly enjoy my college experience in a way I never had before. I took some typical classes in which most of the other students were 18-to-21 year-old undergrads; while my weekend, evening, and online courses were mostly filled with people like me, juggling work, financial issues, stress, and usually families along with their university course load.

St. Edward's graduation

Shelley with her family at her St. Edwards graduation in 2008.

While it was a lot of work, it ended up being one of the most rewarding and fun experiences of my life. When I walked across the stage at graduation in 2008, I felt a sense of accomplishment that is hard to describe.

Higher education leaders must continue to develop programs that reach the ever-growing pool of non-traditional students, both for student success and to continue robust applications and enrollments in their institutions.

About the author

Shelley Seale, Co-founder and Director of Content

Shelley Seale is the co-founder and Director of Content for The Center for Higher Education Leadership. She is an award-winning journalist, author and editor based in Austin, Texas, and a graduate of St. Edward’s University with dual degrees in Journalism and Cultural Psychology. She has written for National Geographic, USA Today, The Guardian, The Week, The Telegraph, The Business Journals, International News Media Association, The Coaching Connector, Texas School Business and numerous university publications. Shelley is a member of the American Society of Business Publication Editor, and can be reached at shelleyseale.com or LinkedIn.







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