9 Things Nontraditional Students Need to Know

nontraditional studentsA recent conversation with a colleague led to a tangent about what we know, but our students don’t know, about studying in the midst of endless other responsibilities. We also have the common experience of pursuing a graduate-level education well after completing undergraduate programs right out of high school.

I completed a master’s program at a distance, in my early 30s while working full-time, and without a home computer or Internet connection. This meant a lot of early and late hours at the office, which my boss was okay with, but required careful time management and a personal commitment to seeing it through.

Now that I teach online, in graduate programs that enroll almost exclusively adult students, I see the struggle daily. It’s important to make sure they not only have the academic support needed to succeed, but also maintain realistic expectations about the learning experience. What do they need to know about being adult students?

  1. Nontraditional is the new norm. The National Center for Education Statistics acknowledges that there are different descriptions of “nontraditional” in use across higher education institutions. The “defining characteristic,” however, is age; nontraditional students are usually described as being over the age of 24. These students also “often have family and work responsibilities as well as other life circumstances that interfere with successful completion of educational objectives.” In a 2014 survey, The Learning House found that 84% of online students were 25 years old or older. This is increasingly the case in campus-based programs as well, where nontraditional student enrollment is expected to rise to as much as 43% by 2020.
  2. Don’t worry so much about your grades. You need to do well in your courses, but the quest for a 4.0 GPA can detract (even distract you) from the learning process. Focus on active participation and thoughtful completion of class activities and assignments, and the good grades will come. In highly competitive fields, grades are more important, and are certainly part of grad school applications, but the reality for most of us is that not too many people ask about your GPA after you graduate.
  3. Get as much practical experience as you can – while you are a student. Seek out internships, volunteer and community service projects, and opportunities to tie in your work interests with class assignments when you can. This is particularly important if your online education goals include a career change. Generally speaking, employers are looking for applicants that have a combination of education and related previous experience. Work with your school’s career center for assistance with resume writing and job interview preparation that helps showcase your strengths and experiences.
  4. Get to know your classmates. This is the professional network of your future – people studying along with you, with similar career interests – although you’ll likely end up working in a variety of industries, settings, and locations. Make the connections now and stay in contact as friends and alumni after you graduate. You never know when a conversation will lead to a promising job opportunity, a new resource, or helpful advice about a work-related project.
  5. Get to know your instructors. Your teachers collectively bring a wide range of experiences to the classroom, whether it’s a physical one or online. And depending on your field of study, part-time faculty members often also work outside of academia. They have a lot of information to share about their own career paths and current workforce needs in your field. Take the time to include this group to your professional network.
  6. Expect the unexpected. Be open to taking advantage of opportunities you didn’t plan for, or even know were available, when you began your academic program. This could range from leadership positions in student groups, to collaborating with faculty on research projects, to coursework (required and elective) in topics with which you are completely unfamiliar. Make the most of your time as a student to explore and experiment.
  7. You can do it all, but maybe not at all at once. Nontraditional students are by definition (see item #1 above) juggling multiple roles and responsibilities that often include employment and family. Adding school to an already full schedule usually means something’s got to give – your family may not see you as often, for example, and you may be on a much tighter budget with tuition and other education-related costs factored in. Identify your goals related to pursuing a degree program and establish priorities for the year, the month, and the week to keep you on track.
  8. Sometimes school isn’t the top priority. Life happens, usually when we don’t see it coming. This is a reality that can be hard to face when you are immersed in course assignments and making ends meet. You are expected to work (and study) through challenging weeks. Everyone has them, even your instructors, and we do hear our fair share of not-so-convincing excuses for late assignments, etc. But, there are more serious scenarios in which you might want to consider taking a short break. If you find yourself dealing with truly overwhelming circumstances, talk to your instructor and academic advisor to go over all of the possible options.
  9. Enjoy being a student. There’s something to learn from the saying that “life is a journey, not a destination.” If degree or certificate completion is your goal – you’ll get there one course at a time, one module at a time, one day at a time. School is just one part of your life, and taking courses is just one component of the college experience. Embrace the diversity of conversations and colleagues, as well as the successes and challenges you will encounter along the way.

Is Age a Factor in Online Learning?

As an adult, online student you are busy. There’s little doubt that you are stretching your time, energy, and finances to their maximum possible limits. But being an older student also has its advantages. Participants in a recent Inside Online Learning Twitter chat (#IOLchat) shared their insights about adult learners:

  • You’ve got a big picture view. Deciding to become a college student was a choice, probably a carefully considered one. Having this larger view can lead to better work-life-school balance, and the ability to connect what you are learning with both past experiences and future goals.
  • You can positively influence younger classmates – and vice versa. By openly sharing your previous professional experience, while also asking questions and admitting that you don’t have all the answers, you model self-confidence, maturity, and a willingness to learn from everyone.
  • Persistence, organization, and planning are not new to you. These are just a few of the skills often found in lists of characteristics for successful online learning. You’ve learned something about how to prioritize tasks and manage your time, and can now apply these skills to your course work.

What is your online learning story? Does it include returning to school after a break or beginning your higher education journey as an adult student? Share your advice for adults who have similar goals and decisions to make about school and careers.

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Source: Inside Online Learning Blog