When nontraditional becomes traditional

I have struggled over the last year when trying to label the demographic group of students that used to be called nontraditional. Since this group of students has become the norm, does the nontraditional label still work and, if not, what should we call this group of students?

Elisa Robyn, Academic Dean of the College of Contemporary Liberal Studies at Regis University, and Linda Lujan, President of Lamar Community College, proposed in a recent article published in The EvoLLLution that we call them what they are: the new contemporary student.

Changing demographics will continue to challenge our use of labels. As far back as 2002, up to 73 percent of students are what we generally categorize as nontraditional students. These students work more, rely on child care, desire online and/or accelerated programs and are coming to our institutions with some life experience under their belts. So despite them being in the majority, we still refer to them as nontraditional. Robyn and Lujan state that “calling them by a label that marginalizes their majority status in our institutions can be harmful to them and cause us to treat them as outside the norm, which they no longer are.”

The authors further argue that even the group of 18-year-olds that we used to consider “traditional” have very different demographics and expectations than what we are used to. Contemporary students want technology used to enhance their academic pursuits such as podcasts and taped lectures. They want mobile apps that help them learn and take care of school business in the same way they take care of other things in their lives. The authors claim that while in the past a classic student might be more interested in living on campus and having access to salad bars and climbing walls, the contemporary student will be more influenced by the quality of technical support and relevant and current curriculum and pedagogy.

Shifting the labels has allowed the authors to ask different questions about student success such as how curriculum design may exclude contemporary students from particular degrees, how do we design international experiences for students in their home communities rather than expecting them to spend a semester overseas, and how do we envision basic skill development, such as writing for a student who is far removed from the high school experience.

The authors suggest that the shift in language can help shift our thinking, which in turn shifts our assumptions and behaviors. As we struggle as a nation to decide the right way to provide an education path for all Americans, changing the labels might be the first step to finding better solutions.

These facts were instrumental in helping us use a new approach to developing our products and services. Rather than start with the assumption that we know what students need and want, we went directly to them and asked what are the issues that get in the way of completing their education goals and what kind of help would they like in overcoming them. Input from contemporary students, along with input from the expert higher education administrators and faculty, helped us design solutions that are needed today and will be used by today’s student. To find out more about Student Connection’s Success Center, you can schedule a demonstration here.

Has your institution thought about how it labels students? I’d love to hear your thoughts. You can contact me via email, Twitter or LinkedIn.