non-traditional

5 innovative strategies to support non-traditional students


These strategies can help colleges and universities keep this fast-growing student group on track for success.

Non-traditional students are one of higher education’s fastest-growing groups, and with data indicating that most of these students feel unsupported, institutions are stepping up strategies to help at-risk non-traditional students meet their academic goals.

A Barnes & Noble College report reveals that non-traditional students who do not participate in extra-curricular activities, who spend minimal time on campus, who pay for school independently, and who have a negative experience with a school support system or service are more likely to be at risk of not graduating.

A previous Barnes and Noble College study of nearly 800 non-traditional students as a whole revealed that nearly twice as many non-traditional students are at risk of dropping out when compared to traditional peers.

The report notes that the number of non-traditional students is projected to increase more than twice as fast as traditional students from 2012 to 2022, according to the CLASP Center for Postsecondary and Economic Success. And because non-traditional students are among the fastest-growing student groups, this means schools face retention challenges.

Only 37 percent of at-risk students said they feel confident they will accomplish their educational goals, and 33 percent of those at risk participate in extra-curricular activities, compared to 62 percent of non-traditional students who are not at risk of not graduating.

The at-risk group spends less time on campus–10 hours per week compared to the 16 hours per week that non-traditional on-track students spend on campus.

(Next page: 5 strategies to support at-risk, non-traditional students)

At-risk non-traditional students are less likely to engage with their peers than are non-traditional students who are not at risk–35 percent compared to 68 percent.

Only 3 percent of at-risk non-traditional students strongly agreed that they have friends at school, just 5 percent said they feel socially connected, and only 8 percent said they felt like they belong at their school.

This group of students also reported experiencing low levels of academic support. Less than half said they: believe faculty are available to help when they need it; feel that they have a good relationship with their academic adviser; and were satisfied with their experiences when they used tutoring services and/or academic advising.

Forty percent of at-risk non-traditional students said they emotional well-being is a challenge. Nineteen percent said they feel “happy” at school, compared to 51 percent of non-traditional students who are not at risk.

To meet the challenges that come with supporting at-risk non-traditional students, schools can use five strategies to address key needs:

1. Identify and then seek feedback on campus services from at-risk non-traditional students. Some of these students may not be aware of services, and they will require education. But, especially for those who have used services and came away with a negative perception, starting a dialogue with them may uncover opportunities for updates and improvements.

2. Help them build connections and relationships on campus. At-risk students need to feel like they belong on campus, and that other students are sharing some of the same experiences. But, they may not know how to connect with their peers. Events and activities bringing these students together can help foster those relationships.

3. Be persistent and consistent in communications. It may take more time to reach at-risk non-traditional students and get them engaged with services and activities on campus. Finding a way to get in front of them regularly and using the communications channels they prefer is key.

4. Think broader with career counseling support. At-risk non-traditional students may feel disconnected from the benefits their education can bring them. Working with them to break through negative feelings and define goals and opportunities may serve as a powerful motivator.

5. Educate students on affordable materials/learning solutions. It is particularly important that at-risk nontraditional students find the right support that they can access in the places and times that work best for them. As a population that spends less time on campus and is less engaged with their peers, they may find digital learning tools and online solutions valuable, for example.

Laura Ascione