Jan 03 2018

4 Ways Universities Can Better Engage with Nontraditional Students

Higher education institutions can leverage technologies and data to prepare learners for success.

For colleges and universities to succeed today, treating nontraditional students as the norm is becoming quite important.

With college enrollment declining over the past five years, looking to engage students who have often struggled in traditional academic settings might be a way for universities to increase their success.

Here are four ways universities can make sure they are meeting the needs of these so-called nontraditional learners:

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1. Know Who Nontraditional Students Are

The term nontraditional can be a bit nebulous. A report from the American Council on Education defines these learners as students who are age 25 and older, working full time, financially independent or connected with the military. These students can also be parents. Recent data from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research shows that 26 percent of undergraduate college students have children.

Even two years of college can make a significant impact on the lives of these students. ACE’s report, “The Post-Traditional Learners Manifesto Revisited,” found that nontraditional students who earned an associate degree are less likely to be unemployed and less likely to live in poverty.

2. Know What These Students Need from Education

To better serve students with a multitude of priorities outside of education, ACE suggests that colleges provide “a more flexible learning ecosystem that is distributed across different life stages, places, times, platforms and experiences.”

Weber State University, which was named the best two-year college for adult learners by Washington Monthly magazine, leveraged its knowledge of its students’ needs to create an online platform that facilitates flexible learning.

“We’re trying to raise the six-year graduation rate — online plays a key role in that,” Bruce Davis, Weber State’s dean of online and continuing education, tells EdTech. “It provides flexibility if you need to take an extra course a semester to speed your time to completion.”

3. Leverage Data Analytics to Tailor Education

Given how student needs and characteristics vary, ACE recommends making use of data to better serve nontraditional students.

“Regardless of the sophistication of analytics functions, institutions can take basic steps to use data in ways that focus on utilizing data analytics to prescribe the kinds of support and service that nudge a student toward success,” ACE reports.

As more universities drive up retention with analytics tools, it is likely that more innovative ways to use data will emerge.

National Louis University in Chicago, for example, used data to build an adaptive learning program, which adjusts the educational experience to accommodate nontraditional students, Acrobatiq reports.

The Pathways program, designed specifically to give Chicago-area students access to a college education, includes face-to-face class time twice a week with the rest of the coursework completed through Acrobatiq’s adaptive learning software. The program cuts teaching costs for the school and cuts tuition and textbook costs for students.

4. Bring the Workforce to the Classroom

Like many other students, nontraditional students are seeking higher education to better prepare for a career. One way that ACE recommends that universities make sure this is being done is through partnerships with the workforce.

For its online-only cybersecurity program, which is full of adult “career changers,” Champlain College Online consistently reviews industry needs and has its curriculum verified by federal agencies to make sure students are learning skills that they’ll need in the workforce.

Other universities have leveraged apprenticeships and business partnerships to make sure students are ready for their future careers.

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