nontraditional students

3 ways to actually support nontraditional learners

As today's nontraditional learners become the majority of higher-ed students, new policies should support them

Nearly 60 percent of today’s U.S. undergraduate students are nontraditional learners, according to new research–and institutions can follow a few key steps to support these learners.

Nontraditional students, as noted in the report, are students who are 25 or older, working full-time, are financially independent, or are connected with the military. These students include single parents, immigrants, veterans, and those working full-time jobs.

The Post-traditional Learners Manifesto Revisited: Aligning Postsecondary Education with Real Life for Adult Student Success, from the American Council on Education (ACE), notes that more than 1 million Americans could get out of poverty if everyone in the U.S. 25 years or older, with some college but no degree, earned an associate degree.

“Helping more non-traditional learners earn a degree would have lasting and transformative effects on our society, economy, and higher education,” said Louis Soares, lead author of Revisited and ACE’s vice president for strategy, research, and advancement. “Of the 23 million undergraduates, more than 13 million are nontraditional learners. Some start a degree but don’t finish it, racking up debt and adding to their financial burdens.”

(Next page: 3 policy areas that merit immediate attention)

In the report, the authors offer suggestions to improve data, develop more robust or integrated financial aid and employment policies, and tailor academic programs in ways that would strengthen how post-traditional learners are served.

Improving data:
• At the national level, build on ongoing improvements to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System that allow for a better understanding of college-going patterns of post-traditional learners.
• At the state level, leverage Statewide Longitudinal Data Systems to better understand the relationship between post-traditional learners’ learning journeys and outcomes.

Developing policies:
• Continue to invest in the Pell Grant Program in ways that make college more affordable for post-traditional learners.
• Better align federal financial aid and unemployment insurance policies.
• Tap into new research on the Federal Work Study Program to explore ways to better serve post-traditional learners.

Tailoring academic programs:
• Acknowledge learning that occurs outside higher education.
• Embrace systems and consortia.
• Use institutional data, policies, and systems to prescribe the right delivery models and services.
• Create better engagement between higher education and the workforce.

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Laura Ascione