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Educational Opportunities Abound for Nontraditional Students

Jan 01, 2017 02:25PM ● Published by Hilary Daninhirsch

World War II Japanese Offensive Class

Gallery: Nontraditional Students [3 Images] Click any image to expand.

For many people, education continues well beyond college age. Whether the goal is job retraining, switching careers altogether, or simply a desire to learn something new, more nontraditional students are taking advantage of educational opportunities.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, nontraditional students share one or more of the following characteristics—being independent financially; having one or more dependents; attending school part time; being employed full time; delaying postsecondary enrollment; being a single caregiver; or not having a traditional high school diploma. In 2011-2102, about 74 percent of all students had at least one nontraditional characteristic.

“The idea of the nontraditional learner is moving off the needle—some are circumstantially driven,” said Dr. Mark Kassel, director of Chatham Online. For example, Kassel pointed out that the nursing profession is currently requiring a bachelor’s degree in nursing for positions that used to only require an RN.

Kassel says it’s the ‘hybrid’ form of education that is trending—partially online and partially face-to-face. “That may be the most effective form of education we are discovering,” he said, adding that some accrediting and licensing agencies require students to attend at least 50 percent of classes in person.

Though online learners include students well into their 70s, Kassel reported that the 18-25 year old group is one of the fastest rising populations in the online space. At Chatham University, students of all ages attend classes both online and in person, with about 15 percent of Chatham’s 2,200 students fully online.

Although the majority of the student body at La Roche College is of the “traditional” variety, La Roche has always been home to part-time adult students as well.

Dr. Howard Ishiyama, vice president for academic affairs and the academic dean, said that the rise in nontraditional students is a matter of demographics. There are simply fewer high school graduates now while the adult population is growing.

“The fastest growing demographic is people in the 25-29 year old age category; that is also when people start to think that they need a college or graduate degree to balance out their portfolio, to switch careers, or to juice up their current career,” he explained.

Fortunately, these nontraditional students have a variety of learning options.

“We’re finding that adult students gravitate toward the online courses much more than face-to-face,” said Dr. Ishiyama, adding that the main reason is convenience; students can log on when their busy schedules allow.

For those nontraditional students who do attend in-person classes on campus, Ishiyama said that La Roche offers a rotation of evening accelerated courses. Many students enjoy the interactivity of a classroom environment, which is a mainstay at La Roche.

Ishiyama added that La Roche has intentionally cultivated an international population. “We have students from almost 40 different countries on our campus; 20 percent of the total population is international.”

For classrooms that contain a mix of intergenerational students, both sides benefit. 

“Frankly, those can be wonderful classes. Sometimes you have an older person who wants to observe and listen and who loves being around younger folks. Sometimes older students want to be engaged and draw on past experiences. In both cases, whether adults take a mentorship role or an observant role, it seems to raise the classroom up a notch,” said Ishiyama.

“I think it’s a huge advantage for instructors to have more life experience in the classroom and to apply materials to help everybody learn. I think mixing those perspectives is a tremendous advantage,” said Kassel, adding that online learning has thrown the door open for a lot of creativity, including scenario-based learning and competency-based education.

While being out of school for many years sometimes results in learning struggles for older students, both Chatham and La Roche offer academic and career counseling support.

Ishiyama pointed out that older students are often very motivated and focused, perhaps even more so than the younger students, an opinion echoed by Kassel. “It does take maturity and self-discipline to achieve in that online environment,” he said.

For some mature adults, the end goal of learning is not to obtain a degree but to expand their horizons. At the Institute for Learning in Retirement in Slippery Rock, seniors can choose from a myriad of classes in which to participate throughout the fall and spring semesters.

“If you look at brain science, there is a lot of evidence being collected about learning new things and the effect of that on the brain,” said Assistant Director Constance Smith. “It seems to really promote brain health to be involved in learning new things and in the social contact that comes along with attending a class with people. Those two things are very important and are really the dual goals of our organization.”

Sample topics in these eight-week classes include book discussion, art criticism, current events, photography, history, and philosophy, among many other options.  Participants can also go on biking excursions or field trips to museums, the opera, and more.

No matter what your age or stage in life, it’s never too late to learn something new.

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