How Are Higher Education Institutions Preparing for Nontraditional Students?

By    //    Volume 27,  Number 2   //    March/April 2019

The profile of a “typical” college student has undergone a remarkable shift within the past several decades. According to the U.S. Department of Education, nearly 75 percent of students today are over the age of 25, are working at least part time, or have dependents. Trusteeship asked Paul LeBlanc, PhD, the president of Southern New Hampshire University—which has been a leader in serving so-called nontraditional students—to define this new generation of learners and share his insights on how higher education can build institutional capacity to meet their diverse needs. LeBlanc serves as the chair of AGB’s Council of Presidents.

What makes a student “nontraditional” in today’s academic environment?

Generally, we think of “nontraditional” students as those not fitting a long-held image we have of college students—a 17-year-old graduating from high school and going straight to a residential campus—but that is overly simple and focuses on market segmentation. I prefer to use Clay Christensen’s “jobs to be done” lens. A traditional student is asking us for an academic experience and a “coming of age” experience—clubs, sports, dorm life, study abroad, and more. Nontraditional students often have had more coming of age than they can handle. They work full time, they have kids, they have served in the military, they are returning to college years after giving it a try, and more. So much of higher education is now focused on that “nontraditional” population.

What are the responsibilities of institutions when it comes to addressing nontraditional students’ unique obstacles to learning?

If an institution has clarity about what its nontraditional students want from it, they then should become very focused on those needs: an academic program that is also convenient, addresses cost challenges, gives them a meaningful credential, and gets them to completion as soon as soundly possible—the four Cs. What you can’t do—or shouldn’t do—is simply take the policies, processes, and programs that were designed for your traditional students and assume they can work equally well for your nontraditional students.

How must traditional institutions think differently to better serve nontraditional students, and what does that look like in practice?

Once you take into account the jobs that nontraditional students want us to do, you look at everything differently. You streamline your administrative processes (these are busy adults squeezing in an education alongside family and work responsibilities), you establish transfer-friendly policies, you build responsive customer service (yes, I used that phrase) functions, you chase down their transcripts for them if they are bringing in credits, you have proactive advising/coaching, and the list goes on.