SJR Column: Nontraditional Students, December 2016

If you picture the average college student as someone 18-22 years old who lives on campus, attends classes during the day and whose life includes an array of campus social activities – you may need to adjust your thinking.

Adult learners, sometimes referred to as “nontraditional students,” have been a growing presence on college campuses for several years. That is certainly true at the University of Illinois at Springfield, where, at the same time the number of traditional-aged students is growing, almost 41% of UIS undergraduate students this year are over the age of 24.

And age is only part of the story…. the National Center for Education Statistics has identified several interrelated characteristics that are common among nontraditional undergraduates. Besides age, these students often did not start college immediately after high school, attend school part-time while also working, are not financially supported by their parents, may have children or other dependents, and are more likely to be a single parent.

Adults start or return to college for a variety of good reasons – most seeing a college degree as a long-term investment that will improve their professional credentials, provide better career opportunities and enhance their overall quality of life.

Ashti Dawson, a 35-year-old senior majoring in psychology, is one such student. A foster child from a young age, Ashti decided the military was her best financial option after high school. Eventually, a promotion in the National Guard brought her and her young daughter to Springfield. She earned an associate degree from Lincoln Land Community College before enrolling at UIS.

“With school, work and parenting obligations, there’s a lot of responsibility and financial challenges,” says Ashti, “but I always feel like I have been determined and persistent… and I love the psychology department.”

In addition to being a fulltime student, Ashti is President of the Military Veterans Club on campus.

Meagan Turner is also a nontraditional student and a single mom. Now 28, Meagan will graduate this year with a major in biology earned at the same time she’s been working two jobs. “With work and my 4-year old son, I don’t have time to be socially involved like younger students,” says Meagan. “Many borderline students need extra help; but I have found staff in the Diversity Center and faculty members in biology who are helpful and want me to succeed.”

“My plan is to earn a master’s degree in education and become a science teacher in a low income neighborhood. I understand how it is to be there and want to help low income students with their struggles.”

Allen Dixon is a Lanphier High School graduate who spent a semester at Illinois Wesleyan before having to leave college to help support his mother and five siblings. He later returned to LLCC for an associate degree and is now a 35-year old junior majoring in communication.

“The Office of Disability Services at UIS has been great,” says Allen (who is legally blind), “but working, living off campus and managing financially is a struggle. All you can do is pick yourself up and move forward.”

Many classes at UIS today include both traditional-aged and adult learners and faculty greatly value the diversity that mix provides. According to Marcel Yoder, an Associate Professor in psychology, “Nontraditional students bring life experiences to class discussions that provide unique and powerful examples of the ways specific course concepts are illustrated in the world – points of view that would not otherwise be heard.”

Assistant Professor of communication Ann Strahle has also taught many nontraditional students.

“I’ve found these students often face multiple challenges,” she says, “but the vast majority rise to the challenges and excel in the classroom. Nontraditional students tend to be well organized and focused and are already excellent multi-taskers – considering the other responsibilities in their lives.”

Being able to take some or even all coursework online is particularly helpful to nontraditional students, who tend be balancing myriad other responsibilities. According to Vickie Cook, Director of the Center for Online Learning, Research and Service, about 1,500 students are pursuing their degrees online at UIS this year, which allows them to schedule time to study and participate in coursework based on their individual schedules.

“Our faculty design online courses that engage students and promote a learning community,” says Dr. Cook, “and Online Program Coordinators provide sustained support and services to ensure a positive learning experience and, ultimately, program completion.”

Looking at the trending demographics of today’s college student body, nontraditional may, in fact, become the new traditional. Whatever those trends, the Springfield campus is strengthened by the presence of both traditional and nontraditional students and we’ll continue to adopt practices and resources that help all students to succeed regardless of their age.

Susan J. Koch, Chancellor of University of Illinois Springfield

Chancellor Susan J. Koch