Higher-ed leaders must continue to find ways to support online learners and non-traditional students--a crucial demographic of learners

Improving the non-traditional student experience in 3 steps

Higher-ed leaders must continue to find ways to support online learners and non-traditional students--a crucial demographic of learners

Each year, we share our 10 most-read stories. Not surprisingly, many of this year’s Top 10 focused on microcredentials, the student experience, non-traditional students, and the post-pandemic campus. This year’s 9th most-read story focuses on improving the student experience for non-traditional students.

Many college students have access to a traditional learning environment, which often includes attending class in lecture halls, collaborating with peers and professors in person or taking exams at a scheduled time in the classroom. Although this approach works for some learners, this traditional model isn’t ideal for everyone. Non-traditional students pursuing a degree are often juggling multiple day-to-day responsibilities like working a full-time job or managing family obligations, which makes it difficult to earn their degree through a standard model. Online learning is an option that can help break down barriers many of these students face when wanting to skill-up and take the next step in their careers. 

As leaders in higher education, we must continue to find ways to support this crucial demographic of learners by offering online learning options, providing mentorship experiences, and ensuring equitable access to higher education.

Offer online learning options to meet students where they are

With the evolving student landscape, non-traditional students are thriving with flexible, affordable online education. These learners may be parents or full-time workers pursuing their degree who need the flexibility of online higher education options. According to a recent study by the National Center for Education Statistics, 1 in 10 college students in the United States are 40 years-old or older. By 2027, it’s anticipated that more than 3 million students will fall within this demographic. Additionally, data shows us that 4.3 million undergraduate students are parents and 44 percent of them also work full-time.

A competency-based online learning model allows students to complete their degree and courses at their own pace and on their own time. Programs can be adapted to best serve the student upon graduation. Many online universities are already well-equipped to be flexible and incorporate new and evolving skills, but this must remain a priority so students can graduate with job-ready skills.

It’s important higher education leaders continue to adapt and reach the constant growing pool of non-traditional students, both for student success and continued enrollments.

Leverage the power of mentorship

We need to emphasize the importance and advantages of mentoring relationships as it relates to career readiness and ongoing workforce development. Of those with a mentor, 97 percent feel they are highly impactful and valuable, yet only 37 percent of professionals have a mentor. The power of mentorship also lies in the “pay it forward” approach: 89 percent of those who have been mentored will also go on to mentor others. Schools should invest greatly in student and alumni mentorship by assigning, or at least offering, every incoming student with a program mentor. Faculty members can also provide one-on-one guidance to students throughout their degree pursuit. This experience helps students create course plans, acclimate to the institution’s policies and procedures, receive motivation and support to stay on track, and more. In addition, recent Gallup research has found this key experience to be one of the strongest predictors of future workplace engagement and wellbeing.

The power of mentorship brings incredible value to students and their overall experience, as well as supporting career readiness. Mentorship can happen at varying levels, from one-off micro-mentorship opportunities to deeper connections that span decades-long careers. Further, mentors come in all shapes and sizes, from personal relationships to work peers or managers to educators and coaches.

Ensure equitable access to education

As leaders in higher education, we must also continuously find ways to break down barriers for non-traditional students to ensure equitable access to higher education. While online learning and mentorship opportunities are critical steps, we must also highlight career paths for those who might not otherwise consider them in the first place.

Education is a rewarding field that leaves a profound impact on our youth, but this workforce also lacks diversity. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics showed that fewer than 1 in 10 teachers were either Black, Hispanic or Asian American. This is in part due to fewer and fewer Black students entering into the field of teaching after graduation. According to a study from the Institute of Education Sciences, just 5 percent of Black students who entered education programs went into teaching in Indiana classrooms. These statistics are one of many examples of the importance of accessible pathways to education for all individuals pursuing a degree.

As more and more people seek out non-traditional options to earn their degree, it is imperative that we continue to explore how we can support all learners to reach their fullest potential. By offering online competency-based learning options, mentorship experiences and ensuring equitable access to higher education, we can adapt to this evolving student landscape and open up more opportunities for all students in their educational pursuit.

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