Universities will need to embrace the needs of non-traditional students, who want a choice in where, when and how they learn

3 trends supporting the rise of non-traditional students


Universities will need to embrace the needs of non-traditional students, who want a choice in where, when and how they learn

More than two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s clear that higher education institutions are recognizing and adapting to the lasting impacts that the transition to online learning has had on both learners and faculty alike. While some students are returning to campus, we’ve seen an increase in the number of non-traditional students taking advantage of expanded access to education opportunities online.

These non-traditional learners might be looking to complete their degree, get training for their current job, or upskill for a new one. More often than not they will have some high school or post-secondary education, work full time, and have to balance their education pursuits with other life responsibilities. Flexibility isn’t just something they want – it’s what they need to make it easier to work their way toward their educational goals while they’re working to sustain themselves and their families.

Securing a bachelor’s degree from a highly-respected institution continues to be one of the clearest pathways to professional advancement in the U.S. But traditional four-year degrees don’t necessarily fit the needs of non-traditional students. Universities must continue to evolve to meet the needs of this growing segment of the market.

Further embracing a few learner-centric trends we’ve seen emerge recently will not only continue to expand the promise of higher education, but can also play a key role in addressing the growing labor shortage and helping prepare the workforce of tomorrow.

Better pathways to degree completion.
Thirty-six million Americans hold some postsecondary education, but with no completion and are no longer enrolled. This means there is a massive audience of untapped potential that universities can engage with through degree completion programs, much like the one Morehouse College launched in 2021. Knowing that many of these learners likely have some work experience, integrating a robust career services function can add even more value to completing a degree.

According to a new study from Kansas State University, returning to college to earn a bachelor’s degree leads to both an immediate increase in annual income after graduation and an increase in annual income growth each year after graduation. Students who return to college and finish a bachelor’s degree earn on average $4,294 more immediately after graduation and experience an extra income growth of $1,121 per year, on average. The average age at graduation for students who re-enroll and finish their degrees is 27, and those students have a lot of working years left to experience improved labor market outcomes.

Growth in stackable and credential programs.
While stackable and microcredentials in higher education have been discussed for many years, we are seeing tangible evidence that they are beginning to have a real impact in the market. To further cater to non-traditional learners that need career-relevant skills, colleges can adopt this modularity in their curriculum and their credit recognition policies, offering students more education pathways and increased flexibility in subject matter and degree completion timelines.

Two examples of high-profile programs using this approach are Harvard’s MicroBachelors® Program in University Chemistry, which includes four courses that translate to eight academic credits, and Southern Methodist University, which recently introduced a credit waiver for its Data Science boot camp. The waiver offers learners who previously earned a bachelor’s degree the ability to apply for credit toward SMU’s online Master of Science in Data Science (MSDS) program upon completion of the boot camp.

In describing the program, Peter K. Moore, SMU’s Associate Provost for Curricular Innovation and Policy has said, “A stackable framework—where students springboard from one incremental level of learning to the next, acquiring knowledge and credentials of increasing value and complexity—lets learners account and adjust for so many factors: changing educational goals, shifting financial realities, and their own evolving life experiences.”

More employers relaxing degree requirements and embracing alternative credentials.
In the struggle to find workers and fill positions, some employers have been loosening minimum qualifications for positions at every level, including waiving college degree requirements. Companies that adopt this approach stand to benefit from a larger, more diverse hiring pool – a recent report found that 60 percent of the U.S. workforce does not have a college degree, but obtained the skills for a high wage job through non-traditional means.

This shift in how employers find talent may have been accelerated by the pandemic, but it’s a persistent trend that could help open an additional 1.4 million jobs to workers without college degrees over the next five years. Microsoft is one example of a company that believes there are many pathways to the technology industry, which is enabling them to leverage talent from previously untapped talent pools. While degrees won’t disappear anytime soon (nor should they in most cases), companies will need to make shifts and exceptions in certain industries, especially where diverse talent is sorely needed and where relevant skills can be learned and assessed effectively and efficiently.

As learner needs continue to shift, and the intersection between education and work becomes even more apparent, universities will need to embrace the non-traditional to meet the demands of today’s consumer – students who want a choice in where, when and how they learn.

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