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The Rise of Nontraditional Students in College Education

The Rise of Nontraditional Students in College Education

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By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski
Faculty Member, Criminal Justice, American Public University

Through new and innovative ways to attend college and changes in higher education that provide opportunities for working adults to attend college, there has been a major change in who attends college. Nontraditional students have become the new traditional students.

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This change has important implications for schools because they will need to establish academic programs and curricula that support the learning needs of nontraditional learners. According to the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), only 16 percent of college students today fit the mold of the “traditional” college student.

For example, a traditional college student is typically someone who is between 18 to 22 years of age and is financially dependent on his or her parents. This type of student attends college full time and lives on or near campus.

On the other hand, the AASCU defines nontraditional students as those students who delayed entry to college following high school. These students work full time while attending school part time and have dependents other than or in addition to a spouse.

Additional characteristics of these nontraditional learners include students who have competing obligations between school and their personal lives and have difficulty with the traditional format involving the length of semesters. They may also have a hard time getting to a traditional college campus and following a traditional schedule due to work conflicts.

Nontraditional students also experience barriers that occur while balancing school and life responsibilities. Those obstacles include accessing traditional student services that are predominantly only open during regular business hours, such as billing, career counseling, tutoring and student support offices.

Nontraditional Students Who Are in the Military Also Face Challenges in Learning

As a member of the military who was on active duty and in the Reserves during my college years, I can certainly attest to many of these characteristics of a nontraditional learner. Working on my education between duty rotations, completing coursework with a young family within the home and having frequent scheduling conflicts were some of the challenges that I experienced.

For me, I found online courses to be essential for me to be able to complete my education, including to the doctoral level. Online classes are often a good fit for nontraditional learners because they are asynchronous, typically have deliverables that are due on a weekly basis, permit students to complete coursework around their other obligations, and can be attended day or night from anywhere in the world that has Internet service.

Many Nontraditional Students Are Older than 25 and Bring Real-Life Experience to the Online Classroom

An important characteristic of nontraditional learners is that over 47 percent are older than 25 years of age while pursuing their college education. Nontraditional students bring valuable life experience to the classroom that should be incorporated into the course instruction.

For example, in a criminal justice class, a student who is a police officer can enrich the learning experience by being encouraged by the instructor to share his or her perspectives on the course content to field experiences. If this occurs in a class discussion, then it shows the entire class how the course content directly applies to the field.

Nontraditional Learners Must Feel that Their College Education Applies to Their Career Goals

It is important for nontraditional learners to feel that what they are learning in college has application to their career goals. As a result, instructors have a good opportunity to utilize the life experience that nontraditional students bring to the class and to have students relate the course objectives to their experiences.

This type of learning is consistent with andragogy, which is the practice of teaching adult learners. Andragogy involves shifting from a teacher-centered traditional approach to learning where the instructor educates by lecturing and instead takes a facilitator role to foster learning in the class. The role of facilitator enables the instructor to involve nontraditional learners in diagnosing their learning needs, identifying how course content can help them the most as they prepare for future career goals and promotes creativity in diverse learning methods.

In andragogy, facilitators can support nontraditional learners through encouraging them to develop their own learning goals within the course. In addition, this method of instruction encourages students to identify course resources that will help them learn best through their individual learning styles and gives nontraditional learners responsibility in their own learning.

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About the Author

Dr. Sadulski has over 20 years of experience in the field of homeland security and law enforcement. He has been a faculty member with American Public University since 2011. Dr. Sadulski presented at the Southern Criminal Justice Association’s Annual Conference in Nashville, Tennessee, in September of 2019 on the topics discussed in this article. He spoke at the International Human Trafficking & Social Justice Conference at the University of Toledo on the topic of human trafficking in September 2019 and shared some of his research on human trafficking in Central America. In addition to domestic speaking engagements, Dr. Sadulski has spoken in Europe and Central America on topics associated with human trafficking, narcotics trafficking, and police responses to domestic terrorism.

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