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Lisa C. Sapp and Stephanie A. Williams, Georgia Southern University

Stephanie Williams.jpgLisa  Sapp.jpgDue to the increased enrollment of non-traditional students, postsecondary institutions are focusing on the unique needs of this student population.  According to the National Center for Education Statistics, enrollment of non-traditional students between 2011 and 2021 is projected to increase thirteen percent (National Center for Education Statistics, 2012).  Because non-traditional students have different characteristics and needs than traditional students, advisors must adapt the way they interact with this unique population.  Therefore, it is critical for advisors to develop a holistic plan which supports the academic and career goals of non-traditional students.

A non-traditional student is defined by the U.S. Department of Education (2002) as a student who meets at least one of the following criteria:

  • Delays enrollment
  • Attends part-time for at least part of the academic year
  • Works full-time
  • Is considered financially independent for purposes of determining eligibility for financial aid
  • Has dependents other than a spouse
  • Is a single parent
  • Does not have a high school diploma

Institutional focus on retention, progression, and graduation (RPG) significantly impacts the goals and objectives of advisors.  A 2013 study conducted by Noel-Levitz and the Center for Adult and Experiential Learning analyzed adult students’ priorities and satisfaction related to their educational experiences.  In this report, adult students identified the following as important to their ability to complete a college degree: easy access to advisors, a program pace that fits life and work schedules, advisors knowledgeable about program requirements, studies related to life and work goals, a broad range of course delivery methods, and the ability to apply previous coursework towards a degree program (Noel-Levitz, 2013).  With these criteria in mind, a comprehensive plan for advising non-traditional students will include the following:

Building a Relationship

Advisors are responsible for defining the advisor/advisee relationship.  When working with the non-traditional student population, it is important for advisors to understand the unique relationship requirements of this group.

A number of intentional communication strategies can be useful for advisors working with non-traditional students.  Using direct communication that addresses their needs is essential, such as providing a detailed academic plan that they can relate to their life and career goals.  Through the use of intentional questioning, advisors are able to lay the foundation for building a solid relationship.  Finally, techniques such as attending behavior and reflection of feeling allow advisors to understand students’ motivation and goals (Ivey & Ivey, 2007).  Attending behavior focuses on individually and culturally appropriate eye contact, vocal qualities, and attentive and authentic body language. For example, leaning in towards students, making eye contact, and head nodding are all attending behaviors that encourage students to tell their story.  Methods of reflecting feeling include encouragers and restatements, paraphrases, and summarizations, all of which help students feel understood.

Building trust with non-traditional students is an essential part of the relationship.  Advisors achieve this by being prepared, providing information related to program requirements, demonstrating competency in transfer credit evaluations, and connecting students with campus and community resources.

A strong advisor/advisee relationship is built through the implementation of these intentional practices.  Students feel connected with their advisor and advisors become their go-to resource and support system.

Flexible Advisement and Early Registration Options

Because non-traditional students typically have more life experiences and responsibilities than traditional students, specialized advisement and registration methods are necessary.  Offering an early registration period for non-traditional students gives them the opportunity to register for class times that fit their schedule.  If a separate orientation is not possible, advisors can plan a breakout session during orientation targeting non-traditional students.  Advisors also need to provide flexible advisement options, such as online or phone advisement and extended evening hours.

Partners for Advocacy

To provide non-traditional students with an academic success support system, advisors must develop a collaborative network system across campus and advocate for their unique needs.  Collaboration with Career Services, the office of Academic Success and Tutoring Center, Admissions, Registrar, the Financial Aid office, Housing, Academic Units, Veteran’s Affairs, Counseling Services, and the Disability Resource Center enables advisors to provide information and connect students to essential resources.  In order to advocate for non-traditional students, advisors must understand the issues they face.  

Specialized Resources

There are a variety of specialized resources that advisors can develop to support the non-traditional student population, including the following:

  • Non-traditional Student Handbook: Given to non-traditional students during orientation, this handbook includes campus resources and community contacts, such as child care and off-campus housing.
  • Non-traditional Student Support Group: Providing a peer support group for non-traditional students is a way to connect these students with one another. This would be a network of students connected through an ongoing discussion group using the institutions’ blackboard system. Twice a semester, the peer support group would meet for social gatherings.
  • Non-traditional Student Success Notebook: A common barrier to academic success for non-traditional students is a lack of effective study techniques.  The notebook includes suggestions and resources to increase academic success, including an anticipating and planning for courses chart, a time awareness planner, a calculating your GPA tool, and tutoring resources.

Training and Professional Development

Ongoing training and professional development is a vital part of academic advising.  NACADA’s Statement of Core Values of Academic Advising (2005) states, “Advisors seek opportunities to grow professionally.  They identify appropriate workshops, classes, literature, research publications, and groups, both inside and outside the institution, that can keep their interest high, hone professional skills, and advance expertise within specific areas of interest.”  To better serve the non-traditional student population, advisors should seek opportunities for professional development in targeted areas, including transfer credit evaluation, diversity training, and relationship development training.  The responsibility of advisors is to share knowledge and best practices with others in the field and to continue to advocate for non-traditional students. Participating in NACADA conference sessions, writing for NACADA publications, and presenting within the campus community are all ways advisors can share their knowledge and best practices.

As institutions continue to see growth in their non-traditional student population, advisors must engage in the process of providing these students with a comprehensive plan which supports their academic and career goals.  This support enables students to progress academically.  According to Anderson (1997), “Advising is a key to student retention. The best way to keep students enrolled is to keep them stimulated, challenged and progressing toward a meaningful goal.  The best way to do that—especially among new students—is through informed academic advising.”  Non-traditional students can achieve academic and personal success by utilizing specialized resources and a collaborative relationship with their advisor.  Supporting the institutional mission of retention, progression, and graduation, advisors can play a vital role in this process by understanding the needs of non-traditional students and developing programming that impacts their academic success.

Lisa C. Sapp
Academic Advisor
College of Business Administration
Georgia Southern University
[email protected]

Stephanie A. Williams
Academic Advisor
College of Business Administration
Georgia Southern University
[email protected]


Anderson, E. C. (1997). Academic advising for student success and retention. Iowa City, IA: Noel-Levitz.

Ivey, A. E & Ivey, M. B. (2007). Intentional interviewing and counseling: Facilitating client development in a multicultural society (6th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson Brooks/Cole.

NACADA. (2005). NACADA statement of core values of academic advising. Retrieved from the NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources Web site http://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Clearinghouse/View-Articles/Core-values-of-academic-advising.aspx

National Center for Education Statistics. (2012). Digest of Education Statistics. Retrieved from http://www.nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d12/tables/dt12_224.asp

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

Noel-Levitz (2013). 2013 national adult learners satisfaction-priorities report. Coralville, IA: Noel-Levitz. Retrieved from www.noellevitz.com/Benchmark

Cite this article using APA style as: Sapp, L.C. & Williams, S.A. (2015, December). Best practices in advising non-traditional students. Academic Advising Today, 38(4). Retrieved from [insert url here]


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Academic Advising Today, a NACADA member benefit, is published four times annually by NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising. NACADA holds exclusive copyright for all Academic Advising Today articles and features. For complete copyright and fair use information, including terms for reproducing material and permissions requests, see Publication Guidelines.