Non-Traditional Student Success in Post-Secondary Education
The student population category referred to as non-traditional cuts a wide-swath. Depending on the criteria used for inclusion in this category, non-traditional students may be: Working or non-working adults, active military or veterans, enrolled part-time, returning from an absence from higher education or enrolling after having delayed entrance immediately after high-school, commuting, parents, or supporting other family members or dependents. (Perna, 2010; Wang & Pilarzyk, 2010). Historically, institutions of higher education were not intended for, or designed to accommodate, non-traditional students. Yet the growth rate of non-traditional students enrolled in post-secondary education has surpassed that of traditional students, and this trend seems unlikely to slow or reverse in the foreseeable future (Allen, 1993).
A study of students who began their post-secondary study during the academic year 2003-2004 reported that 15% had not completed their program of study by 2009 although they were still enrolled (Radford, Walton, Lutz, Sara, & Shepherd, 2010). And 36% (or one-third of the students in the study) left their post-secondary programs without earning any type of credential by June 2009 (Radford, et al.). From this and similar research, it is apparent that a substantive number of non-traditional students do not experience academic success, do not achieve the educational goals they set out to attain, or are unable to sufficiently overcome their life-challenges to achieve academic success given the educational supports available to them.
In order to meet the pedagogical needs and scheduling challenges unique to non-traditional students, institutions of higher education may need to change some of their customary practices or add supports that are specifically designed to help non-traditional students achieve academic success. Traditional measures of academic success may need to change as well. Most of the ways that colleges and universities use to measure student success are time-based, relying on traditional ways of structuring higher educational attainment (McGuire, 2010). Students matriculate to earn two-year degrees or four-year degrees. Non-traditional students who withdraw or drop-out, and then re-enter higher education at another institution, are not counted.
In addition to the unique challenges faced by non-traditional students, institutions themselves may place undue burdens on students because of a lack of due diligence on the part of these schools to effectively evaluate the job market. For example, the Department of Education is taking steps to offset the profit motives of vocational schools that — when left unchecked — are ultimately detrimental to uninformed students. In a press release from the Department of Education, Education Secretary Anne Duncan reported,
Let me be clear: we’re moving forward on gainful employment regulations. While a majority of career colleges play a vital role in training our workforce to be globally competitive, some bad actors are saddling students with debt they cannot afford in exchange for degrees and certificates they cannot use. (Hamilton, 2010, Â¶4)
Even with appropriate legislation, the burden has shifted onto non-traditional students to be so vigilant about post-secondary programs that they must independently research workforce development in their chosen field. The prospect of this happening on a large scale is remote.
The literature indicates that non-traditional students may find it more or less difficult to achieve academic success at post-secondary institutions depending on the range of pedagogical and scheduling-oriented supports, the administrative practices, and student service options available to them during their matriculation (Hsu & Hamilton, 2008). This study will explore the relationships between the array of supports and practices encountered and utilized by non-traditional students, who have graduated from the University of Arkansas within the past five years, with the non-traditional students’ reported levels of satisfaction based on their perceived effectiveness of those supports and practices..
Administrative structures and processes. Post-secondary programs may provide a range of administrative options, such as those pertaining to tuition and fee payment, flexibility options, shortened semesters, and student services. Survey questions will explore the influence these options may have had on the attainment of the non-traditional students’ educational goals.
Type and degree of supports. Over the past several decades, post-secondary institutions have implemented a wide range of supports that have been specifically designed with non-traditional students in mind. Universities and colleges commonly schedule classes during what are typically non-working hours for many adults, or arrange pedagogical and learning-oriented circumstances, such as hybrid approaches to coursework and lectures that encompass in-class, distance-learning through webcasts, and online modules or software, like Blackboard.
It is anticipated that these supports and practices can be identified through a document and Web content search of the university’s promotional collateral.
Problem statement. The purpose of the study is to explore the relationship between the type of supports provided by a university to non-traditional students, and the non-traditional students’ perceptions that their educational programs were accessible and effectively customized to meet their needs, thereby contributing to their academic success and post-secondary outcomes.
Working hypotheses statement. Non-traditional students who are enrolled in post-secondary programs that provide pedagogical and scheduling-oriented support are more likely to report higher levels of satisfaction with their academic programs than non-traditional students who attend colleges that rely on administrative and service-oriented support.
Research Questions and Objectives
1. What efforts has the university made to meet the unique needs of the category of students known as non-traditional?
2. What factors influence the perceptions of non-traditional graduates about the effectiveness of their academic programs to prepare them for post-graduate life?
3. What resources, administrative processes, or structures at the university encouraged or discouraged the non-traditional students in the pursuit of their academic goals?
Sampling. A random sample of non-traditional students who graduated from the University of Arkansas within the past five years will serve as subjects. These subjects will be selected from a database of recent graduates provided by the University of Arkansas.
Data collection strategy and procedures. Instrumentation will consist of a survey with closed-end and open-end questions. The questions will address two main area of inquiry: The attributes of the academic programs from which the subjects graduated, and the students’ perceptions of those attributes. Responses to closed-end questions will indicate levels of satisfaction with various, available administrative, service-oriented, programmatic, and scheduling-oriented supports. Responses to open-end questions will be coded according to emerging themes, such as areas of adult education that appear to foster or hinder the academic and post-graduate success of non-traditional students.
Study limitations. It is important to note that this study will only explore perceptions of students who did graduate from university programs. As a result, findings are limited to non-traditional graduates and any consideration of the challenges and issues of those students who did not graduate from university programs in which they were enrolled are precluded.
Allen, Betty A. (1993). The student in higher education: nontraditional student retention [Abstract]. Catalyst, XXIII (3). Retrieved from http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/CATALYST/V23N3/allen.html/
Hamilton, Justin (2010). Department on track to implement gainful employment regulations; New schedule provides additional time to consider extensive public input. Retrieved from the Department of Education Web site http://www.ed.gov/news/press-releases/department-track-implement-gainful-employment-regulations-new-schedule-provides/
Hsu, Jeffrey & Hamilton, Karin. (2008). Educating Adult Learner and Non-Traditional Students: Principles and Techniques for Insuring Success. Presented at the 39th Annual Conference of Southwest Decision Sciences Institute (SWDSI). Houston, TX.
McGuire, Patricia A. (2010). Measuring success for the real majority in higher education today. Trusteeship Magazine, January/February. Retrieved from http://www.womenscolleges.org/story/measuring-success/
Perna, Laura W., Ed. (2010). Understanding the Working College Student: New Research and Its Implications for Policy and Practice. Stylus Publishing, LLC Herndon:VA.
Radford, Alexandria Walton, Berkner, Lutz, Wheeless, Sara, & Shepherd, Bryan (December 2010). Postsecondary Students: After Six Years. National Center for Education Statistics, nces: 2011151.
Wang, Yan, & Pilarzyk, Tom. (2010). Understanding student swirl: The role of environmental factors and retention efforts in the later academic success of suspended students. Journal of College Student Retention Research, Theory, & Practice, 11(2), 211-226.
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