Profile of the Non-Traditional Learner

By Elise Hodge

shutterstock_760359742If you were asked to describe what the typical "university student" looks like, you might picture a teenager fresh out of high school. Today, however, this image is representative of only a small segment of students. Many students today do not fit the mould of what is considered the "traditional learner". When once students used to range from high school graduate age through to the early twenties or thirties, today's enrolling students vary in age, work full-time jobs, and often have families and children when commencing study.

A study by Higher Learning Advocates revealed that 37 per cent of today's students are older than 25. For universities marketing their programs, it can be useful to segment promotional message to appeal to typical high school leavers but also to attract the growing number of non-traditional students as well.

While age has typically been the defining characteristic of the non-traditional learner, it isn't the only factor that should be taken into account. The National Center for Education Studies categorizes non-traditional students within three sets of criteria: enrollment patterns, financial and family status, and to high school graduation status.

Enrollment patterns

Traditional student enrollment is defined as those who commence undergraduate studies directly after high school. In contrast, students who delay enrollment by a year or more are considered non-traditional. In the state of Louisiana, 28 per cent of the 90,000 plus university students are over the age of 25. The average age of community college students is 28, while students in the University of Louisiana system average age 23.

High school graduation status

Enrolling university students are no longer only those who have received a standard high school certificate or diploma. With universities offering innovative entryways to study, today's non-traditional learners also include those who have received an equivalent high school certificate of completion such as the GED.

Financial status and family responsibilities

While traditional high school leavers may still have some level of parental support available to them, non-traditional learners are more likely to be financially independent, have dependents themselves and work full-time during their studies. Some may even be the sole provider in a single-parent household while studying. According to information collected by Higher Learning Advocates, almost two-thirds (64 per cent) of today's students work in college with around half of all students (49 per cent) being financially independent.

For some students, having a job while studying allows the opportunity to gain valuable work experience and necessary skills to fast-track their careers. For others, paid work is often a necessity to pay for studies. For many, it's a combination of both. A survey by Universities Australia found that one in two financially independent students reported their paid work adversely affected their university performance, including their ability to attend lectures and classes. This highlights the necessity of having flexible programs that support these non-traditional learners. Course programs that integrate online resources, virtual meetings and online support, as well as flexible scheduling, will go a long way to help busy students complete their studies.

University approaches to non-traditional learning.

While the face of higher education is changing due to the coronavirus pandemic, this time also provides an opportunity for educators to continue improving the quality and diversity of online content for students. This will not only prove beneficial now but also in a post-coronavirus world, where non-traditional learners require flexible study options.

For example, The University of Wisconsin is releasing a new program, UW-Madison Online, specifically aimed at providing non-traditional learners with greater access to education. The university's first entirely online undergraduate degree in personal finance will start in fall 2020, with more bachelor's degree options to follow in the coming years. The online undergraduate degree is designed for students who have earned some college credits or have an associate degree and want to complete their bachelor's.

The personal finance degree will include a unique mix of financial planning and consumer finance, making it an excellent choice for students who wish to launch a career in the rapidly growing field. Careers in personal finance are projected to grow 15 per cent between 2016 to 2026, according to The Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Non-traditional learners are highly motivated, desiring specific outcomes

Non-traditional students frequently demonstrate a strong personal drive towards pursuing their studies. A common reason why students over the age of 25 are investing in their education is ding career post-graduation. These students often wish to gain employment in a desired industry or role, with two-thirds citing financial stability as a common goal. For financially independent students, obtaining new degrees and certifications should mean higher take-home pay and a better lifestyle for their families.

Marketing to the non-traditional learner

With an ever-diversifying profile of students looking to up-skill, universities and colleges alike should ensure their marketing efforts are multi-dimensional. Different types of students will need to be targeted through various platforms, from Instagram to Facebook to traditional media. Marketers should be careful not to take a one-size-fits-all approach to their recruitment messaging but use creative communication to speak to each demographic.

Of importance is highlighting the flexible options available to non-traditional learners. They are typically navigating a full workload and looking after dependents. The university marketers who will be the most successful are those who pay attention to the evolving needs of their student base and ensure their programs are a good fit. By delivering their education in a manner that effectively addresses these unique needs, they will ensure success for both their institution and the students who choose to study there.

Topics: Education Student Recruitment