How to help nontraditional students succeed
- 74 percent of undergraduates are nontraditional students
- Institutions have historically been designed for traditional students, but systems can be modified to also accommodate the needs of nontraditional students
- Implementing technology to personalize communications can benefit both sets of students
To design higher education software that’s user-friendly, Ellucian’s user experience (UX) team interviewed more than 100 college students, both traditional and nontraditional students, about their undergraduate experience. This research revealed not just design preferences but ways that technology can improve outcomes for both sets of students while accommodating their different needs.
Characteristics of traditional students
Traditional students come straight out of high school into college. In 2017, 67 percent of high school graduates immediately enrolled in college. Today, this population is almost exclusively Gen Z.
For these students, their whole life is school. They are very much on a journey of self-discovery. One thing they’re trying to figure out is how to pair an interest with a career—and what degree gets them there. They look at college as a stepping stone to their career.
They are also very concerned about how to “adult” for the first time. So, while they’re confident in their study skills and have a technology literacy across the board, they need help with life skills, like how to do laundry or understanding what APR means on a credit card.
Defining nontraditional students
According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), 74 percent of undergraduates meet at least one of the following characteristics of nontraditional students:
- They did not go to college immediately after high school
- They received their GED or didn't graduate high school
- They work full time while they go to school
- They attend part time for at least one semester
- They are financially independent from their parents for purposes of financial aid
- They are a single parent
Nontraditional students have a lot of life experience. They arrive at school because they need to advance at work, or they want to switch careers.
They are very focused on getting a degree. A diploma is like a physical artifact to them. It’s much more of an achievement in their eyes because they have so much else going on. The fact that they can balance work and life and family AND get a degree is such a big deal to them.
Nontraditional students are very mobile; they're doing so many things. They are often in many different locations in a day and have to maximize their time. Many will read their textbooks on their phones while they're on the bus going to class.
While this group has mastered “adulting” skills, they need help with study skills, like how to study for a test or write an essay, and they need more support with technology.
College is not their whole life. They're not in it for the holistic experience, but they do value some aspects, like connecting with students who are similar to them.
Redesigning systems to better meet the needs of nontraditional students
Colleges have historically been designed to serve the traditional student—and many institutional systems and processes also serve the nontraditional student. But there are adjustments that can be made to meet the unique needs of nontraditional students.
For example, both traditional and nontraditional students want help with degree planning. They want it broken down. They want to know exactly how many classes they need to take and how many credit hours they need to graduate.
And all students struggle with the volume of content their institutions send them because it buries really important information, like when their FAFSA is due. They often feel like they just get so much school email in a day that they end up missing messages.
But nontraditional students also want to know approximately how much the final bill will cost. They are paying their way through college, working a job as they go. Having that financial information included in their degree planning tools would help them go from an associate’s degree to a bachelor's degree because they could budget their way there.
Additionally, nontraditional students have different needs when it comes to communications. They often get frustrated with emails about events they aren’t interested in, like sporting events. They have no intention of attending a sporting event because they have too many other things going on in addition to school. They want content that’s personalized to them, like a calendar suggestion for a networking event with alumni in their field of study.
Traditional students, too, can benefit from a more personalized experience, from being offered the most relevant content so they don’t have to sift through so much. That’s why data centralization is so important. There's just too much content for any student to sift through. Centralizing data and making it accessible across the campus will help streamline communications and allow departments to better serve both sets of students.
Why mentors are important to student success—and how technology can help
Both traditional and nontraditional students felt like the thing that really inspired them to finish or get through hard moments in college was some kind of personal connection. Students crave that personal relationship and need someone to serve as a mentor, someone they can model. For nontraditional students, that mentor could be a faculty member or another nontraditional student a couple of years ahead of them, not necessarily an advisor.
We can use technology to help identify those mentors organically by suggesting environments where those relationships can develop. That might mean using beacon technology to let students know about office hours where they can meet with faculty or an open coffee shop where they can connect with students in their class. For nontraditional students, those environments may need to be virtual or during evenings or weekends to accommodate their schedules and responsibilities outside of campus.
There’s a lot we can do to help nontraditional students succeed. The challenge for institutions will be to determine how best to modify their current systems and processes to meet the needs of this growing student population.