When asked to describe a "typical" community college student, Angelo Abreu, Assistant Director of the New Brunswick Center at Middlesex County College, paused. Considering the question, he said: "There is no typical. The nontraditional student has become our traditional student."
That word—nontraditional—has seized the attention of researchers and reformers, complicating our portrait of "average" college enrollees. Campuses, once populated by financially dependent 18-to-22 year-olds, are more frequently welcoming those who defy the conventional mold: adult learners, re-entry students, single parents, part-time enrollees, and entrants without high school diplomas. These nontraditional students have diversified college classrooms across the country. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics indicate that at least 70% of today’s undergraduates possess at least one nontraditional characteristic.
Courting greater numbers of part-time, older, and working students, it’s unsurprising that community colleges like Middlesex have seen the largest rise in nontraditional students. According to Karen A. Kim’s article, "Exploring the Meaning of ‘Nontraditional’ at the Community College":
“Almost one half (46%) of first-time entrants into community colleges enroll part- time, compared to 11% of first-time students attending public four-year institutions. Thirty-five percent of first-time entrants in community colleges work full time compared to 11% in the public four-year institutions (NCES, 1998).”
Though a recent study by Marcus Lee Johnson and E. Michael Nussbaum found nontraditional students to be more “developmentally prepared” and “self-regulating” than their “traditional” counterparts, most literature focuses on the stressors that derail them on their journey to degree completion. At-home responsibilities, such as childcare and financial difficulty, may distract from coursework. Fear of failure or doubts about their abilities can be paralyzing.
In an institutional sense, however, reformers analyze the policies that help and harm this diverse cross-section. Scholars have called for colleges and universities to offer enhanced support to students with situational and dispositional challenges. With so many barriers to success, even the most dedicated nontraditional learner can find it difficult to complete a degree in two years. According to Abreu, schools can assist students by “creating clear pathways to college navigation and also creating a support system to offer this marginalized population a means toward one-on-one engagement and interaction to facilitate a smooth transition to college.” He points to recent work by Thomas Bailey, Shanna Smith Jaggars, and Davis Jenkins—authors of Redesigning America’s Community Colleges: A Clearer Path to Student Success (Harvard University Press, 2015)—as a roadmap for reform.
Rejecting the “cafeteria” model (where students serve themselves), Bailey, Jaggars, and Davis advocate a “guided pathways” approach, lending students “support to explore careers, choose a program of study, and develop an academic plan based on program maps created by faculty and advisors.” The goal is to increase retention rates by simplifying the path from enrollment to graduation. Each program is mapped out for students, who create an academic plan and a timeline for completion. Advisors and faculty are trained to monitor progress, intervening at the earliest sign of failure.
The goal is to keep students on track and optimize their potential for success. Though there’s little research to measure the effectiveness of guided pathways, multiple studies connect early entrance in a program of study and coherent structures of support with increased rates of completion. At schools that have applied this approach, anecdotal evidence has been positive. After implementing guided pathways in 2009, Queensborough Community College’s first-year retention rates increased; the graduation rate rose from 12 to 16 percent.
The takeaway is clear: as nontraditional student populations begin to dwarf their traditional counterparts, colleges must adapt to meet their needs. A wholesale revision must occur—not only in the policies and procedures that schools implement, but also the notion that students are solely responsible for their success. Naturally, they are still accountable for navigating their own pathway—but as demographics shift, advisors and faculty are learning how to better clear the obstacles in their way.
Bailey, R. Thomas, Jaggars, Shanna Smith, Jenkins, Davis. (2015) Redesigning America’s Community Colleges: A Clearer Path to Student Success. Harvard University Press
Johnson, M.L., & Nussbaum, E.M. (2012). Achievement Goals and Copying Strategies: Identifying the Traditional/Nontraditional Students Who Use them. Journal of College Student Development, 53(1), 41-54
Kim, A. Karen. (2002). Exploring the Meaning of ‘Nontraditional’ at the Community College. Sage Journals, Vol 30, Issue 1. https://doi.org/10.1177/009155210203000104