Our lives are shaped by our social norms, and education is no exception.
On the "normal" path, we finish our K-12 education around age 18, take the summer after graduation as a sort of buffer zone between childhood and college, and then dive into 4+ years of post-secondary education, with college being the primary focus of our energy for that whole time, our loving and supportive family coming for campus visits and sending us care packages to ease our weary bodies and minds.
That's not the reality for many people, for myriad reasons. My story: I opted to enlist in the Navy after high school, and my life had few parallels to the experiences of my civilian, college-enrolled friends (although I did spend some time in classrooms). I subsequently got married and started a family shortly thereafter. I planned on college, but it got pushed to the back burner, and then completely off the radar for years as "Life Happened". I entered the workforce and leveraged my experience to painstakingly claw my way up the ladder, until the Great Recession kicked me right in the teeth in 2009. I was laid off, and my decades of job experience were useless because I didn't have a degree. I could not compete for jobs because literally thousands of people were losing their jobs all around me, and their diplomas carried more weight than my experience in the ever-shrinking job market. I was simultaneously overqualified and under-credentialed!
That frustrating reality was the catalyst for my entrance into higher education. I needed that "piece of paper" to get in the door and start rebuilding my life, and I had to figure out how to do that while raising four children as a single mom with a very fixed income. I was lucky (in a way), because those "thousands of people" had triggered a shift in social expectations, and programs were springing up to facilitate "non-traditional students" starting or returning to school for re-training or complete career refreshes, so I at least had some road-map for getting started.
"Non-Traditional" is a very broad definition. I don't think we, as a society, have a consensus on what constitutes "non-traditional", but there are a LOT of us. According to information shared by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, "students who enroll in college full time immediately after high school no longer represent the majority of post-secondary college students." Also, graduation rates are not on par with our traditional counterparts. We've got significant competing demands for our time, we're often enrolled part time (work-school balance) and thus have less access to financial aid, and school may have taken a backseat to returning to employment when the economy started to recover, according to this article (full article here).
The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) published an article this week that touched on this topic. In a recent "hearing titled, “Empowering Students and Families to Make Informed Decisions on Higher Education,”... Brett Guthrie (R-KY) said that there is currently a mismatch between the information available on the efficacy of the federal student aid system and what students are encountering while enrolled and after graduation, as well as a lack of information on the growing number of nontraditional students." (link to full article here). In other words, we don't really know, objectively, what "non-traditional" looks like.
The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) says:
"Exactly what constitutes a nontraditional student has been the source of much discussion in recent research. Most often age (especially being over the age of 24) has been the defining characteristic for this population. Age acts as a surrogate variable that captures a large, heterogeneous population of adult students who often have family and work responsibilities as well as other life circumstances that can interfere with successful completion of educational objectives. Other variables typically used to characterize nontraditional students are associated with their background (race and gender), residence (i.e., not on campus), level of employment (especially working full time), and being enrolled in nondegree occupational programs."
The term "non-traditional" seems to just mean "anything other than the social fairytale norm." The challenges may not be well-studied, well-quantified, or well-understood, but a Google search results in scads of research papers, journal articles, college FAQ pags and self-help lists designed to help navigate common challenges.
My own educational path hasn't always been easy, most of those challenges a direct result of my "nontraditional" status, not the coursework itself (to be fair, my fellow "traditional" students seem to have had their own challenges, but they also seem to have much more robust support mechanisms, especially in terms of ways academia is structured to support the traditional path - which is to be expected!). I managed to navigate the various challenges (some of them even on those lists!), and slogged through a technical certificate in Management, an AAS, AS and BS all in Business Admin, and I'm currently mid-program for my MS in Leadership and Management.
Hurdles and hiccups aside, nontraditional learning has a lot of benefits I didn't expect.
1. Learning to be my own advocate
When I started college, I started in the summer term. I had no idea what I was doing, except that I needed to hit the ground running. I signed up for five (yes, five) classes, and my "advisor" asked, "Are you sure? That's a heavy load." I was unemployed, school was going to be my full-time activity. Yes, I was sure! Ha! I didn't know that summer semester was only 8 weeks long, and that I'd essentially signed on for the equivalent of 30 credit hours. I cried a lot that first semester, and I honestly am not sure how I got through it with an intact family (or sanity). I quickly realized that nobody was going to explain things I didn't ask about first, so I started asking, a lot, and haven't stopped yet!
2. Sifting the wheat from the chaff
If you've ever taken any kind of class at all, you've probably found a lot of useless crap folded into the curriculum. I also have the life experiences that say no matter howstrongly the professor insists, "this is how it is in the real world," they're often utterly misinformed or out of touch. I (normally) have approached this with moderate civility, but I'm very comfortable challenging the party line, especially when it contradicts my own empirical experiences. (author's note: I also coach my kids on good and less-good ways to do this to prevent major fall-out. We're radicals, but we're not academic anarchists... usually!). It's a delicate edge to walk, but learning how to effectively and constructively challenge group-think and other forms of intellectual inertia is very valuable. I also learned how to sift out valuable information and discard the rest, something that's also come in handy when organizing my closets!
3. Developing my creative/innovative and collaborative muscles
I was lucky. My kids were all potty-trained, some of them could do laundry, and some of them could even cook, by the time I started college. Even so, we had to come up with some interesting routines and processes to let us get through the new world order we found ourselves in. I don't think we developed anything that I could bottle and sell to other families of non-traditional students, but we had to think outside the box and work together to make this all work, and those boundaries shifted when I finally did go back to work, and again as my career started to reassert its place in our world. We've wrestled with scheduling, finances, work-life balance, job-sharing, and so much more. It hasn't always been pretty, but we made it work, and we all got better at working together. Those skills are exceptionally transferable to other group settings. My kids frequently facilitate group situations in school or on their jobs that many of my colleagues could not comfortably manage, and I expect their knowledge and experience bases to continue to grow throughout their lives. I know I've been able to apply those hard-fought lessons to my work life with relatively respectable success! (I often say that I've survived four teenagers - my coworkers don't faze me!)
And let's talk creativity. When I learned that my campus didn't offer the classes I needed at the times I had available, I got them to agree to apply online classes from another campus to my program. I successfully cited Dr. Seuss in papers for classes as diverse as Ethics, Sociology, Marketing and Microeconomics. I once took my finals at a campground with really spotty wi-fi so we could still have a family vacation. (Plan B: Panera 20 miles away - luckily unneeded!) I have enough horror stories from my time in the workforce to supply an entire graduating class with hypothetical scenarios for writing projects, and you know, you can usually find used scrubs for that ONE biology lab at thrift stores instead of paying $$$ at the campus bookstore for a lab coat you're never going to wear again. I had to be creative.
Words have power, and often connotations that do us all a disservice. "Non-traditional" learning still carries a pretty hefty stigma, and certainly it has its challenges. I don't think the data will dispute that (once we get some...), but it has a lot of perks, too! I believe that educational institutions recognize the landscape is shifting, and I hope more schools (including K-12!) look at ways to re-imagine the current "challenges" and see them as opportunities instead. I look forward to seeing what kind of creative solutions our friends in Academia come up with over the upcoming years!
I still encourage my kids to choose an easier path, but I know that if they don't (and they haven't, always...), all is not lost.
I'd love to hear others' success stories (or "stories in the making")!