ERIC Identifier: ED347483
Publication Date: 1992-12-00
Author: Benshoff, James M. - Lewis, Henry A.
Clearinghouse on Counseling and Personnel Services Ann Arbor MI.
Nontraditional College Students. ERIC Digest.
Cross (1980) defines the nontraditional student as an adult who returns to
school full- or part-time while maintaining responsibilities such as employment,
family, and other responsibilities of adult life. These students also may be
referred to as "adult students," "re-entry students," "returning students," and
"adult learners." Because developmental needs, issues, and stressors for adults
differ considerably from those faced by younger, "traditional-age" students, all
aspects of the college environment must be reconsidered (and often reconfigured)
to respond to this growing student population (Benshoff, 1991). Over the last 20
years, the percentage of older students on campuses has increased dramatically.
From one-third to one-half of all college students are classified as
nontraditional and more than 50% of all graduate students are over 30 years of
age (Aslanian & Brickell, 1980). "Adults are the fastest-growing segment of
all the population groups in higher education" (Brazziel, 1989, p. 116) and this
trend is expected to continue.
CHARACTERISTICS OF NONTRADITIONAL STUDENTS
A number of
factors characteristically separate nontraditional students from younger college
students. Adult learners tend to be achievement oriented, highly motivated, and
relatively independent with special needs for flexible schedules and instruction
appropriate for their developmental level (Cross, 1980). Adults generally prefer
more active approaches to learning and value opportunities to integrate academic
learning with their life and work experiences (Benshoff, 1991). Financial and
family concerns are two of the biggest considerations that impact on the adult
student experience. Additional factors (Richter-Antion, 1986) which distinguish
nontraditional students from traditional students include:
*stronger consumer orientation (education as an
non-school-related commitments and responsibilities;
of an age cohort; and
social acceptability and support for their student status (operating outside of
traditional adult roles).
WHY ADULTS RETURN TO SCHOOL
Many nontraditional students
come back to school to complete educational pursuits they began years before as
traditional-age students. They may have dropped out of education for a number of
reasons, including financial considerations, competing responsibilities, and
lack of focus, motivation, and maturity. Changing job requirements or career
changes often force adults to get additional education to survive or advance in
the job market (Aslanian & Brickell, 1980). According to Brazziel (1989),
"the ever upward progression of an educated adult population and workforce and
[increased educational requirements for] high-paying jobs--might be the single
most powerful factor" (p. 129) in the continued influx of adult students on
college campuses. Other major reasons that adults return to college include
family life transitions (marriage, divorce, death), changes in leisure patterns,
and self-fulfillment (Aslanian & Brickell, 1980).
Aslanian and Brickell (1980) proposed a "triggers and transitions" theory
that relates the adult's decision to return to school to developmental issues
and crises faced during midlife. Transitions (the movement from one status to
another) require new knowledge, skills, and/or credentials that often lead
people back to college. Triggers are events that precipitate the timing of an
adult's decision to return to school, most frequently career events and family
NEEDS OF NONTRADITIONAL STUDENTS
need many different kinds of support and assistance from family, friends, and
institutions of higher learning. Research evidence suggests that "both [sexes]
have difficulties juggling the roles of student, worker, and family member" (Muench, 1987, p. 10). Adult students need help in building their
self-confidence as students, in acquiring or refreshing study skills, and in
managing their time and other resources while in school. In addition, adult
students benefit from opportunities to interact with their peers and need to be
actively involved in the educational process through sharing their relevant work
and life experiences (Muench, 1987).
RESEARCH ON NONTRADITIONAL STUDENTS
Clayton and Smith
(1987) identified eight primary motivations for nontraditional women students'
decisions to pursue an undergraduate degree: self-improvement;
self-actualization; vocational; role; family; social; humanitarian; and,
knowledge. Many of these women (56%) cited multiple motives for returning to
school. In a study of married re-entry women students, Hooper (1979) found that:
the longer the woman had been a successful student, the higher her self-esteem;
the longer the woman had been in school, the higher the anxiety experienced by
the husband; and, the more traditional the roles and responsibilities within the
family, the greater the guilt the woman experienced about her student role.
Other developmental issues for women who return to school (Terrell, 1990)
guilty about not "being there" for their children;
about quality and expense of childcare;
of responsibility for maintaining their role within the family;
compromises in careers due to family considerations;
individual free time;
lack of credibility when returning to college;
support from family for returning to school.
Research on nontraditional male students is limited. Muench (1987) found that
both sexes experienced fears of failure and self-doubt. Men, however, suffered
more from lack of self-confidence, while women experienced more guilt. Among the
nontraditional students studied by Bauer and Mott (1990):
were changing careers while women were looking to advance within the same career
more than men experienced competing pressures of child care, financial, and
more than women tended to be frustrated about loss of time and money in
returning to school.
IMPLICATIONS FOR STUDENT AFFAIRS
present some major challenges for institutions of higher learning whose programs
and services have been geared to the traditional-age student population. Studies
of adult students have identified a number of additional services to better meet
their needs, including:
registration, advising, and orientation;
availability of and access to parking;
evening and weekend course offerings;
assistance with financial aid and housing; and
preparation of faculty and staff to meet the needs of adult students.
Thon (1984) found that the student services most often implemented for adults
were counseling- and career-related. Services that adults considered important
(but which were least often available to them) included health services,
publications for adults, and qualified staff to work with nontraditional
students. In addition, colleges must offer social activities appropriate for
both older students and their families. Innovative and creative approaches often
must be implemented to effectively communicate information about both academic
and student services programs to nontraditional students who almost all commute
and attend school part-time.
Nontraditional students are causing institutions
of higher learning to re-think the focus of academic and student affairs
programs. Research has shown that nontraditional students have needs that differ
from those of traditional-age students (Richter-Antion, 1986; Thon, 1984). The
willingness of institutions to modify existing programs and develop new services
geared to adult populations will have a positive impact on their ability to
attract, serve, and satisfy the educational needs of adult students.
Aslanian, C. B., & Brickell, H. M. (1980).
Americans in transition: Life changes as reasons for adult learning. New York:
College Entrance Examination Board.
Bauer, D., & Mott, D. (1990). Life themes and motivations of re-entry
students. Journal of Counseling and Development, 68, 555-560.
Benshoff, J. M. (1991). Nontraditional college students: A developmental look
at the needs of women and men returning to school. Journal of Young Adulthood
and Middle Age, 3, 47-61.
Brazziel, W. F. (1989). Older students. In A. Levine & Associates,
Shaping higher education's future: Demographic realities and opportunities
1990-2000 (pp. 116-132). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Clayton, D. E., & Smith, M. M. (1987). Motivational typology of reentry
women. Adult Education Quarterly, 37, 90-104.
Cross, K. P. (1980, May). Our changing students and their impact on colleges:
Prospects for a true learning society. Phi Delta Kappan, May, 630-632.
Hooper, J. O. (1979). Returning women students and their families: Support
and conflict. Journal of College Student Personnel, 20, 145-152.
Muench, K. E. (1987, October). A comparative study of the psychosocial needs
of adult men and women students in an adult degree program. Paper presented at
the annual meeting of the American Association for Adult and Continuing
Education, Washington, DC.
Richter-Antion, D. (1986). Qualitative differences between adult and younger
students. NASPA Journal, 23, 58-62.
Terrell, P. S. (1990). Adapting institutions of higher ed to serve adult
students' needs. NASPA Journal, 27, 241-247.
Thon, A. J. (1984). Responding to the non-academic needs of adult students.
NASPA Journal, 21, 28-34.