Shift in the Education system from a traditional to a non-traditional student.

by Barbara Galkowska on Jun 21, 2022

Shift in the Education system from a traditional to a non-traditional student.


Changing profile of a typical student

The path to graduation from any higher education institution has been based on a very traditional model, with a typical student entering the university right after high school, attending full-time classes, and living on campus. In recent years though, this model revolutionized. According to data collected by Deloitte Insights, the profile of a typical incoming US student has changed a lot. According to their research, nearly a half of college students were 24 years or older, 30% attended class part-time, 43% of full-time undergraduates work (National Center for Education Statistics, 2022), 28% of all undergraduates have children (Cruse, et all. 2019), 52% are the first in their families to attend college.

Source: Fishman, T., Ludgate, A., Tutak, J. (2021) Deloitte Insights, Success by Design

Similar conclusions are shared by National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (2018). According to their study, more than one in five college students-or 22 per cent of all undergraduates are not only adult learners but also parents. What it means in practice is that student parents are older (average age being 32) while enrolling in college in comparison to the rest of the students, with an average age of 27 for independent students without children. Also, their motivation differs from their fellow students. Students who are parents are adult learners, or who are first-generation college attendees are often motivated to pursue college by different factors, one of the most common being a desire to improve their children’s lives (Cruse, et al 2019).

Interestingly enough, despite the range of obstacles affecting their ability to graduate on time, student parents achieve higher GPAs than other students – one-third of student parents have a GPA of 3.5 or higher, compared with 31% of independent nonparents (Gault, 2015).


Do higher education institutions keep up with “nontraditional” students?

Bearing in mind a changing profile of a student, little has been done to change the essential character of higher institutions and effectively support students on their way to graduation. Students with different lifestyles, different motivations, needs and expectations still need to follow the same study path and share very similar student experiences as their more independent and younger study counterparts.

Unfortunately, a lot of higher institutions remain resilient to change and refuse to adjust their teaching model or take examples from other industries. With traditional support structures in place, and little or no flexibility of study hours and restricted office hours universities have little to offer to those ‘nontraditional’ students.

What seems to be the biggest and most noticeable change, however, initiated not by institutions themselves but by the pandemic, is changing focus on hybrid or online learning and teaching. Just as the rest of the world, excluding those whose jobs were deemed essential, learners, faculty and staff needed to adjust to new conditions and shift from a campus-centric, pre-pandemic way of learning and working to a learn-and-work-from-any place in the world.


The importance of technological progress for education

Thankfully technological progress enabled the introduction of this new learning and working model. With the introduction of new digital platforms and tools, universities needed to learn how to work beyond traditional boundaries and continue to operate efficiently, manage risks, and coordinate resources effectively on and off-campus. What is more, it proved to be more adequate to the needs of students with “nontraditional” backgrounds, including adult learners who follow the trend of lifelong learning, and take the decision to pursue further education.

In order to continue improving the student experience and further encourage student success a positive change should continue to focus on developing a student-centred strategy across the entire student journey, thus from the enrollment process through classroom introduction, support services, and operations to even post-graduation. Having these in place improved student outcomes, programme completion rates and time to graduation are expected to considerably improve.


Foundational capacities model

To create an institution designed for student success, Deloitte Insights based on its research suggests a concentration on four foundational capacities: high-impact learning, comprehensive support services, student focus operations, and strategic external partnerships.


High-impact learning = personalised learning

Modern learning technology allows recognizing individual student’s needs, tailoring learning to current advancement level, and identifying how students learn. This allows optimization of the results of the learning process. Whether we speak of adjusting delivery method to someone’s preferences (thus providing an opportunity to follow a traditional model and conventional face-to-face lead classes or studying in the self-paced online environment), using studying adaptive systems (allowing continuous student-level assessment), or tailoring curriculum and focusing on competencies instead of credit hours, can make a significant impact on learning outcomes. The group that would benefit most from it is “nontraditional learners”, who require more flexibility and more individual study approach and who know specific skills and competencies they need to take out from their studies.


Dedicated student support

It is normal for students to approach difficulties at different stages of their entire student journey whether we think of course registration, developing study skills or gaining proficiency in studying the course material. In fact, any potential obstacle brings lots of risks affecting lessening motivation and study efforts to even dropping out.  Studies show that effectively targeted and carefully designed student services can significantly diminish the risk to students drop out rate and produce better student outcomes (Blum & Jarrat, 2014)

A proven model used by some US universities uses data collected at different study stages (starting from the enrollment process) for predicting potential difficulties and targeting solutions to help in overcoming or getting through obstacles (Fishman, Ludgate, Tutak, 2021). This as a result contributes not only to students’ better end results but also improves the entire student study experience.


Structured pathway

Following a structured and clear academic plan proved to influence the graduation rate (Bailey, Jaggers, Jenkins, 2015). Students needing guidance respond well to a road map as it gives them a clear idea of the timeline, list of courses available, and easiness of navigating their way to graduation.  On the contrary, universities offering a self-service model and providing students with no guidance make them feel more disconnected and lost and as a result, lose focus and prolong study duration.

Introduced by Florida State University a mandatory advising programme influenced the dropout rate of students graduating with excess credits from 30% per cent to 5% within seven years, at the same time positively affecting the four-year graduation rate that rose from 44% to 61% (Columbia University, 2014).

In other words, common digital services offered to students including course registration, access to library resources, and financial aid information are no longer considered proactive enough to make sufficient difference to the students. What is truly needed is an intrusive advising-active intervention that requires building relationships before problems occur and detecting them in advance (Center for Applied Research, 2011).



While many students enter universities unprepared, either due to lack of academic preparation, inability to decide which programme to choose from, or which course to follow, how to gain and master study skills to meet learning requirements, or even what career path to follow in the future, partnering with external institutions can significantly minimize these problems at the very early start of the student journey. Whether the solution is to offer preparatory courses, study and career guidance, or share leading practices, these can bring lots of value to future students and higher education institutions (Fishman, Ludgate, Tutak, 2021).


Meaningful changes in designing student success programmes are not going to happen overnight and require transition affecting sometimes the entire institution. Through the encouragement of change in culture, infrastructure and operations higher institutions show support for student focus environment, which will result in achieving desired results.




Bailey, T., Smith Jaggers, S.,  Jenkins, D. (2015) What we know about guided pathways, Columbia University, Teachers College, Community College Research Center, (accessed: 17 June 2022)

Blum A., Jarrat, D. (2014) American Enterprise Institute conference, Using student services to enhance outcomes and reduce costs, InsideTrack, “Stretching the higher education dollar” American Enterprise Institute conference, October 2014, p. 2-4,

Center for Applied Research (2011) National study of undergraduate students and information technology, (accessed: 17 June 2022) 

Columbia University, Teachers College, Community College Research Center (2014) Redesigning community colleges for student success: Overview of the guided pathways approach, (accessed: 17 June 2022) 

Fishman, T., Ludgate, A., Tutak, J. (2021) Deloitte Insights Success by Design (accessed: 17 June 2022).

Gault, B., Reichlin, L., Reynolds, E., Froehner, M. (2014) Institute for Women’s Policy
Research, 4.8 Million College Students Are Raising Children, (accessed September 8, 2015).

Hess, C., Krohn, S., Reichlin, L., Roman, S., Gault, B. (2014) Institute for Women’s Policy Research, Securing a Better Future: A Portrait of Female Students in Mississippi’s Community Colleges, uploads/wpallimport/files/iwpr-export/publications/C417.pdf  (accessed 17 June 2022).

National Center for Education Statistics (2022) College Student Employment Condition of Education. U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, (accessed: 16 June, 2022)

Reichlin Cruse, L., Holtzman, T., Gault, B., Croom, D, Polk, P. (2019) Institute for Women’s Policy Research, Fact Sheet Student Parent Success Initiative, Parents in College by the numbers (accessed: 17 June 2022)



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