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Voices of the Global Community


Lorneth Peters MeHee Hyun, and Sylvie Taylor, Advising Adult Learners Commission Members
Jennifer Varney, Advising Adult Learners Commission Chair


Lorneth Peters.jpgAt one time the term “non-traditional student” referred to a small number of older adults who registered for night classes and occasionally asked for advising. Today, the academy has broadened the definition for non-traditional student, and we have reassessed their needs. MeHee Hyun.jpgThe National Center for Educational Statistics (2002) reported that at least 73 percent of undergraduates have at least one “non-traditional” characteristic: not enrolling in college immediately after high school graduation, working full-time, being financially independent, having dependents, being a single parent, or not possessing a high school diploma. Non-traditional students also are disproportionately first generation and students of color.

Sylvie Taylor.jpgUnlike many traditional students who were raised with college completion as a primary goal, these non-traditional learners may not have viewed higher education as a part of their development or life trajectory. Non-traditional students often enroll in college during a period of transition, e.g.,Jennifer Varney.jpg during a divorce, change in job/career, pregnancy, recent birth of a child, as young children become more independent, or when older children leave home. These non-traditional students may have limited support from their families and communities for their academic goals, They may be greatly restricted by their limited understanding of higher education, inappropriate advice from members of their support system, or responsibilities that compete with their academic work.

We, as advisors, play an important role in the success of these students. It is critical that we reflect upon our advisor preparation and expectations if we are to help these students succeed. To aid us in this reflection, we offer the following suggestions for creatively meeting the needs of this growing student group.

Creative ways to meet the needs of non-traditional students

  • Change our mind-set. Characteristics of non-traditional students continue to evolve, so we must frequently revisit our views of non-traditional students. A non-traditional student may be 20 instead of 45; a 20-year-old student may be a parent of two with a full time job.
  • Reconsider our internal advising structure. Advising non-traditional students can be more time consuming due to great variability within this student population. Use multiple contact methods, including face-to-face, email, phone, and Web advising. Create materials that cater to a variety of learning styles.
  • Confirm student goals. Provide students with a questionnaire that helps them reveal the goals they hope to achieve. Let their answers establish a road map for helping these students effectively meet their goals.Effective advisors garner a sense of students’ overall histories and why now is the time a particular non-traditional student has chosen to enroll.
  • Help students discover their strengths. Ask questions that will help students realize how their real-world knowledge, skills, and talents will assist them in achieving their academic goals. Provide needed insight (e.g, time commitment for an online course) to help these students better manage their varied responsibilities.
  • Determine the support needed to help students achieve their goals. Many factors determine an appropriate course load and students’ abilities to engage in their educational experience. How familiar are students with the higher education environment and its expectations? Do students understand the academic preparation (e.g.,type of degree, time to degree, licensure, or specialized skills) necessary to achieve their career goals? Do students need childcare to attend class? Know available support services, both on campus and within the community, that can help students meet their goals.
  • Demystify college jargon. Each college has terms and acronyms that new students, especially non-traditional students, may find intimidating. Provide new students with a glossary of terms to help them acclimate to the institution.
  • Touch base frequently. Keeping up with advisees can be a challenging task, so find ways to make it more pleasurable for both advisor and student. Instead of meeting in the office, why not meet up for lunch at the campus cafeteria or meet for a cup of coffee?
  • Form a non-traditional student network. Introduce mothers to mothers, fathers to fathers, full-time working students to other working students. This can help non-traditional students feel more at home in the higher education setting.
  • Sponsor family events. Incorporate children and spouses into activities to help keep non-traditional students engaged. A family cookout at a park can make students feel like an advisor is interested in both their academic and personal lives. Note: some institutions require that a liability form be completed by each participant to lessen institutional liability.
  • Incorporate technology into advising. Many college students immerse themselves in technology. Texting, chat rooms, Facebook© and Twitter© have moved the use of technology to a different level. Think of ways to incorporate frequently used technologies into interactions with non-traditional students.
  • Help students understand the cultural norms within the college.  Make sure these learners understand their roles in communication, social, and professional contacts with peers, faculty, and staff. Students used to being in charge may need a reminder that academic staff work with them, not for them.
  • Feel comfortable with student interactions. Advisors should feel confident about working with students who may possess career competencies and life experiences far more extensive than their own. These students may be comfortable in challenging what they hear; advisors should be professional as they share the reasons certain policies and procedures exist.

Advisors working with non-traditional students must respect individual differences. The most successful advisors take time to learn each student’s story, identify the student’s strengths and challenges in this new environment, and respectfully and effectively link these students to the resources that will best suit their individual needs.

Lorneth Peters
Academic Counselor
Austin Peay State University

MeHee Hyun
Core Faculty, BA in Liberal Studies Program
Antioch University Los Angeles

Sylvie Taylor
Professor, M.A. Psychology Programs
Director, Applied Community Psychology Specialization
Antioch University Los Angeles

Jennifer Varney
Director of Graduate Student Advising
SNHU College of Online and Continuing Education


Milam, J. (2008). Nontraditional Students in Public Institutions: A Multi-State Unit Record Analysis. Retrieved from http://highered.org/docs/NontraditionalStudentsinPublicInstitutions.pdf 

U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Nontraditional Undergraduates, NCES 2002–012, by Susan Choy. Washington, DC: 2002 retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2002/2002012.pdf

Cite this article using APA style as: Peters, L., Hyun, M., Taylor, S., & Varney, J. (2010, September). Advising non-traditional students: Beyond class schedules and degree requirements. Academic Advising Today, 33(3). Retrieved from [insert url here]


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