Add your voice to a discussion on nontraditional students in higher education

Kai Drekmeier
President and Founder

We are conducting a survey of a broad spectrum of innovators, change agents, and other leaders in higher education on how to improve outcomes for nontraditional students. We plan to capture our findings in a Leadership Report on Issues and Ideas in Higher Education—which will in turn form the foundation for a Virtual Leadership Summit in 2012. This initiative closely follows our practice of hosting ongoing Leadership Forums that bring together senior administrators in cities across the country.

We would like to add your voice to the discussion, so please email me your thoughts on any of the following questions (feel free to pick just one) at or leave a comment by clicking the link at the bottom of this post:

  1. How will the growth of the nontraditional student population impact your institution in the next five years?
  2. What policy changes or campus innovations would you recommend to address the obstacles facing the nontraditional student? Do you see short-term opportunities to address those obstacles?
  3. Which institutions or organizations are doing something effective to produce more successful college graduates among nontraditional learners?

We have already received many thoughtful comments from a diverse group of leaders in higher education. I can only capture a handful here in reviewing our preliminary findings, below, but I look forward to sharing their ideas in our final report.

While not surprising, feedback to date suggests a strong consensus that adult learners need flexible scheduling, require at least some online course instruction, need accelerated programs, and should get credit for experience that the Center for American Progress broadly defines as “beyond institutional boarders” (Klein-Collins, Sherman, and Soares, Center for American Progress, 2010).

A strong advocate for prior learning credit is Judy Ashcroft, Dean, University of South Florida, University College, and former president of the University Professional & Continuing Education Association. Dr. Ashcroft commented, “CLEP tests and Advanced Placement tests are staples of assessing prior learning for entering students. For me, a portfolio that assesses prior learning for adult students is a more thorough process and certainly as valid as a test. At this time when we need highly educated persons in America to fill 21st Century jobs, we need all options to encourage and support adults who are completing their degrees.”

Also not surprising was a discussion on what successful outcomes mean—improved graduation rates or “employability.” Lisa Sax, who directs Corporate Partnerships at SUNY Empire State, commented, “…we…anticipate a greater need for many adult learners to complete degrees and obtain certificates in order to stay competitive in the labor market…For the first time in the college’s history, 12 credit graduate certificates are now offered…”

Tony Carnevale, who directs the Center for Workforce Development at Georgetown University, argues that “the growing nontraditional student population will challenge formal postsecondary institutions”— in part “because of the growing demand for proof of employability skills.”

A third dominant theme was the need for support services in two key areas: assistance with paying for college and acquiring the skills to be successful. Financial literacy also emerged as a key area of concern.

We cannot begin to address our nation’s college completion crisis unless we focus on the growing number of adults who are either returning to college or who are embarking on this journey for the first time. But as Sandy Baum, Senior Fellow at the George Washington University Graduate School of Education, observes, “older students are much less likely to succeed in college than those who enroll immediately after high school. There are a variety of reasons for this, including weak academic preparation and financial strains.”

Focusing on adult student success is a large part of what we do at InsideTrack through executive-style coaching for college students. We recognize the challenges many colleges and universities face in creating what Dr. Rita Toliver Roberts, Dean of Students at Philadelphia’s Peirce College, defines as “a culture and climate of service to adult students.” Our hope is that this survey and our Virtual Summit will contribute to the many outstanding efforts to improve outcomes among nontraditional students, who increasingly represent the norm in higher education.

  1. One vital piece I believe is for all educational establishments to recognize and address the ways that experiences of violence impact learning. Many non-traditional students have experienced some, if not many forms of violence in their lives and addressing this issue will be a key factor in their successful completion of college. For more information on this check out: – in particular the new materials recently developed from research in community colleges are quite relevant to universities as well: – though we are also eager to partner with those interested in understanding the best ways to address this issue in the higher education sector – in order to develop a comparable tool specifically for universities. Contact us at

  2. Not suprisingly, in keeping with the economic situation, we have seen a surge in the number of students attempting to receive credit for their life/work and non-traditional learning; at the same time, we have also observed the tendency for colleges to impose caps on the amount of prior or non-collegiate learning credits they will award. At National CCRS, we are continually trying to monitor and improve that disconnect between student need and institutional requirements.

  3. Great info… the Community Foundation in my community just set up a “graduation initiative” to get more local folks to finish their degree… Please keep me informed about your activities… Perhaps they might be interested in contracting with you so they can achieve their objectives and eventually win a $1 million prize.

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