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Genta M. Stanfield, Auburn University

Genta Stanfield.jpgNontraditional Student Characteristics and Enrollment

Nontraditional students, or adult learners as they are commonly described, are typically defined by specific characteristics, and they may have one or multiple of these characteristics to identify them as nontraditional. The first and easiest to measure is generally age; other characteristics include a delay in entering college after high school completion or completing a GED, having dependents other than a spouse, and having part- or full-time employment to which the importance of their educational pursuits is secondary (Astin, 1977; Benshoff, 1993; Bergman, 2012; Choy, 2002; Chung, Turnbull, & Chur-Hansen, 2014; Compton, Cox, & Laanan, 2006; Goncalves & Trunk, 2014; Graham & Donaldson, 1999; Kasworm, 2010; Schlossberg, Lynch, & Chickering, 1989; Tannehill, 2009; Wyatt, 2011).

Nontraditional student enrollment continues to make up a large portion of undergraduate student populations on both traditional college campuses and in the distance-learning sector across the U.S. With nontraditional students making up nearly 41% of the postsecondary student body, institutions of higher education should be aware of the unique demands of this population. Four-year, public, nonprofit, degree-granting institutions need to research the needs of their nontraditional students as, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, 45% of the part-time student population and 11% of the full-time students were aged 25 or older (McFarland et al., 2017).

Anderson’s (2003) study revealed that over the previous 30 years, the number of older students increased by 144%, whereas the number of traditional students increased by only 45%. This student population is even surpassing the traditional student population at some institutions (Choy, 2002). Research by Bergman, Gross, Berry, and Shuck (2014) indicated that by 2025, over half of the jobs in the United States will require a college degree, and in the eight years after 2010, the U.S. would experience a three-million-person gap between college graduates and jobs requiring a degree (Carnevale, Smith, & Strohl, 2010; Lumina Foundation, 2011).

Marginality and Mattering Affect Retention

Despite this need for workers with postsecondary degrees and the trend of more adults returning to complete degree programs over the last 20–30 years, many nontraditional students may feel under-supported by academic resources and marginalized by their institutions (Kasworm, 2010; Markle, 2015; Schlossberg, Lynch, & Chickering, 1989). Sissel, Hansman, and Kasworm (2001) theorized that “adult students are often viewed as invisible and of lesser importance to the traditional core student group, as evidenced by higher education mission statements, publicity and image, and exclusion of adult requirements in the shaping of policies, programs, and outreach” (p. 18). Graham and Donaldson (1999) argued that “educators and administrators often rely on earlier research on how college affects traditional students and assume the same things are true for adults—even though they may intuitively know better” (p. 147), and Kasworm (2001) cautioned that “many adult learners need more time to dedicate to their academic life than they have available. In these circumstances the academic responsibilities shift to the bottom of the priority list, and the guilt and frustration related to this balancing act often lead to departure decisions" (p. 93).

Given Kasworm’s assertion, institutions who wish to retain and help their adult learners be successful will need to be aware of the nontraditonals’ time and effort limitations and provide ways to support them academically to facilitate completion. Nontraditional students face more barriers to completion and “nontraditional students have significantly lower retention and graduation rates when compared to their traditional counterparts” (Grabowski, Rush, Ragen, Fayard, & Watkins-Lewis, 2016, p. 3). Many nontraditional students face three types of barriers as described by Fairchild (2003): situational barriers of family, employment, and finances; dispositional barriers of role strain including role conflict, role overload, and role contagion; and institutional barriers caused by colleges and universities that are “ill-equipped to deal with the career orientation of adults” (p. 13) and are “often not structured to accommodate adult students” (Fairchild, 2003, p. 13). Despite this, Fairchild argues, “adults persist against difficult odds in an institutional system that does not recognize them for who they are and is not designed to meet their needs” (p. 14). However, when a student feels connected to the institution, that they matter, the retention rates improve as feeling a sense of value helps engagement in the learning process and experience (Schlossberg, 1989).

What Can Advisors Do?

Brown (2002) suggested that academic support professionals need to be specifically trained in the needs of adult learners, specifically in adult development and learning theories, family systems theories, and on the challenges of sense of community and belonging to the institution. Universities should develop specific orientations and workshops geared towards the nontraditional student for academic support (Brown, 2002). Baird (2005) argued that in advising interactions with nontraditional students, the advisor must encourage positive involvement that “should add to, not compete with, nonacademic involvements, and create a culture in which adult learners sort out their own commitments and integrate their outside and academic demands synergistically” (p. 610). It is the role of the academic advisor to advocate for the “students’ point of view, since students have relatively little power on most campuses” (Baird, 2005, p. 611). For nontraditional students who are used to having control over their work, families, finances, etc., this feeling of helplessness can often be discouraging and frustrating.

Advocating for the adult learner and adopting an “early and often approach” (Tokpah, Padak, Baycich, Trehan, & Turnidge, 2006, p. 77) is imperative for an advisor. While advisors hope to instill self-advocacy and self-reliance in their students, nontraditional students often already have these attributes due to their maturity. However, Marques and Luna (2005) assert that advisors should act as mediators between faculty and nontraditional students in order to allow “both parties to be open without affecting the mutual trust relationship” (p. 5). Nontraditional students expect their advisors to keep them updated on new tools, policy changes, and curricula as well as promoting their school-work-life balance and finding creative solutions to course conflict issues that result from the time restrictions of nontraditional students (Marques & Luna, 2005).

Most nontraditional students report that their main interactions and engagement with an institution’s staff are due to their need for advisement (Wyatt, 2011). Previous studies of the population indicated that it is important for nontraditional students to feel important, connected, and valued by the institution and its faculty and staff (Schlossberg, 1989). Moody’s (1996) findings further suggested that a developmental approach to advising had a positive effect on the nontraditional student’s perception of mattering, suggesting that the process of academic advising and the interactions with the advisor “can be highly influential” (Moody, 1996, p. 123) in how a nontraditional student feels about the institution and their own scholastic journey. Lowe and Toney (2000) cited five sources ranging from 1980–1993 supporting the correlation of the effect of academic advising on student retention rates, making the acceptance of this idea as “the now proven correlation between good academic advising and student retention” (Marques & Luna, 2005, p. 5). Marques and Luna (2005) also observed that adult learners are less in need of the advisor’s aid in motivation and goal setting, but are “seeking a peer-like relationship with their advisors and looking for identification points rather than looking to their advisors as examples” (p. 6).

Therefore, it is essential in advising nontraditional students that the advisor seeks to create a spirit of partnership with the student in their educational journey in order for the adult learner to feel they have an ally and advocate in their corner. Hayter (2015) discovered “when relationships developed, the tenacity to stay the course also increased, solidifying the need to make sacrifices with a determination to complete the program together” (p. 94). Sometimes the best practice in advising this unique population is simply being the sympathetic ear to their academic and non-academic situations alike.  Other times it is imperative to help adult learners navigate the intersection of their academic life and their real lives and to direct to relevant support services both on and off campus. No matter what interaction occurs, advisors have a significant impact on nontraditional students and their perception of their value on campus.

Genta M. Stanfield, M.Ed.
Academic Advisor
Department of Biosystems Engineering
Auburn University
[email protected]


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Cite this article using APA style as: Stanfield, G.M. (2019, September). Advisor impact on nontraditional students’ perception of mattering. Academic Advising Today, 42(3). Retrieved from [insert url here]


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