Although there is no certainty when the educational system adopted the term nontraditional student, more than a third of undergraduate students are more than 25 years of age, and part-time enrollment and two-year college attendance is up (NCES, 2002). Initially, when one referred to a nontraditional student, it was in reference to a small number of older adults who registered for night classes. However, although age is the variable that seems to define what most of us think of as a nontraditional student, there are other criteria we could use to identify them. For example, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) suggests using three sets of criteria to identify these students: enrollment patterns, financial and family status, and high school graduation status.
Additionally, according to the Center for Postsecondary and Economic Success (2011), many unencumbered 18-year-olds are no longer typical college students. Today, research indicates that most undergraduates have at least one characteristic that would place them in the category of nontraditional student. These could include not enrolling in college straight out of high school, working full-time, being financially independent, being a single parent, having dependents, or even not holding a high school diploma (NCES, 2002). Today, more than ever, there doesn’t seem to be a typical undergraduate.
Another important factor that contributes to the image of the nontraditional student is the continued popularity of online courses. According to Sheehy (2013), more than 6.7 million students took at least one online university course during the fall of 2011. This equals 32% of higher education enrollment! And, according to the same study, online course registration continues to increase. The availability of these courses is especially important for what is considered to be a nontraditional student. The fact that 39% of the adult student population work full-time and 53% support more than one dependent certainly contributes to the need and the continued demand for this type of information delivery (NCES, 2002). These studies demonstrate that nontraditional students make up the majority of all postsecondary institutions, with all indicators suggesting that their numbers will continue to increase.
Identifying the Needs of Nontraditional Students
NCES also states that nontraditional students have needs that differ from the needs of traditional students. How can institutions of higher education meet these changing needs? A study conducted by a consulting firm (AACRAO Consulting, 2008) suggests that there are a number of things that can be done to benefit nontraditional students and the institutions they attend.
Cost of Education: This can begin with discussing cost payment plans at the beginning of their college enrollments because nontraditional students vary in their abilities to pay increasing tuition costs.
Credit Transfer: Because many nontraditional students previously have attended other institutions, ease in the transfer credit process would be helpful.
Community Building: A very important suggestion, especially for online students, is the offering of orientation and community building. McGivney (2004) found that nontraditional students often express apprehension about college attendance. This is especially true for those who never attended college or who did so many years ago. However, whether one is a traditional or nontraditional student, community building is important at all levels, but especially so for the online and the nontraditional student.
Inclusive Policies: Perhaps one of the most important things an institution of higher learning can do, as suggested by McGivney (2004), is to include nontraditional students in the institution’s mission. In a nutshell, I would suggest that meeting the needs of nontraditional students all comes down to inclusive policies and sustained support.
Psi Chi: Bridging the Gap Between
Traditional and Nontraditional Students
Beyond the university, nontraditional students should be welcomed into academic societies, which foster community and commitment to enriching the student experience. Psi Chi offers these opportunities to students at all levels and at all ages. Numbered among the many Psi Chi membership benefits are seven very important ones (listed in the sidebar!) for all students but, again, especially for those students who may not attend a bricks-and-mortar campus or for those who don’t fit the traditional student definition. Psi Chi can offer financial opportunities lacking for many students especially those of nontraditional status.
Certainly, organizations such as Psi Chi play an important part in students’ lives, whether they are of traditional or nontraditional status. Along with institutions of higher learning, Psi Chi can transform the learning experience of nontraditional students through financial opportunities. But most of all, Psi Chi can bridge the gap between traditional and nontraditional students by creating a place where students of all backgrounds can come together to share ideas, participate in chapter activities, and build lifelong relationships. In addition, life experiences are invaluable assets that nontraditional students can share with traditional students who have not entered that stage of their lives. The cohesion of perspectives benefits everyone in the end, because we are all seeking a sense of community.
Seven Nontraditional Psi Chi Student Benefits