Changing Demographics: Why Nontraditional Students Should Matter to Enrollment Managers and What They Can Do to Attract Them

sem_logo-2007.gifThere have been numerous reports demonstrating the shifting trends in age among students beginning undergraduate and graduate programs in America. According a 2002 National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) report, nontraditional students make up 73 percent of all students enrolled in undergraduate programs, and 39 percent of all undergraduate students are 25 years or older. Redd (2007) also indicated in a report for the Council of Graduate Schools that the number of nontraditional graduate students has risen dramatically and projected this trend to continue. Not only does this report indicate that nontraditional students already make up the majority of all postsecondary institutions, but a study conducted by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education indicated that after 2008, the number of high school graduates will decline until 2015, which means increased competition for undergraduate institutions seeking to maintain or increase the number of newly enrolled students. This expected decline in the number of prospective traditional college students may mean that institutions will make up for this decline by making a stronger effort to target nontraditional students.

Non-traditional students were defined in the 2002 NCES report as having at least one or more of the following characteristics: does not enter postsecondary enrollment in the same year that he or she completed high school, attends part-time for at least part of the academic year, works full time, is considered financially independent from a legal guardian, has dependents other than a spouse, is a single parent, does not have a high school diploma but a General Educational Development (GED) test. Defined in this way nontraditional students cannot be defined by age or any one characteristic but rather the term nontraditional seems to represent one’s life and educational experiences. This broad description makes it close to impossible to pin point one target nontraditional group for marketing and recruiting purposes; therefore, institutions must consider a more comprehensive view of who a potential student might be.

The 2002 NCES report also found that private, for-profit and non-profit postsecondary institutions experienced the highest percentage of growth among nontraditional students. The growth of nontraditional students within private universities can be seen by the rise of students enrolling in institutions, like the University of Phoenix, that offer online and face-to-face program options. In the 2008-2009 Almanac edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education, the University of Phoenix was reported to enroll more students than any other university in America. Other non-profit private institutions like the Union Institute and University, Cardinal Stritch University, Pace University, Villanova University and Loyola University of Chicago, to name just a few, all have both traditional college programs and programs that are geared toward working adults. My institution, Saint Mary University of Minnesota, also serves both traditional and nontraditional students. In the Twin Cities area, there are at least 15 other private colleges that compete for nontraditional student enrollments. The institutions listed here all offer some form of nontraditional programs, including distance learning options, evening and weekend courses, flexible schedules, and blended course options. While institutions like the University of Phoenix have critics and the academic world still places the majority of their resources on traditional academic programs, the growth achieved among nontraditional students at private institutions demonstrates that a large majority of people in the United States are choosing nontraditional program options to meet their academic goals.

The recent downturn in the economy has also provoked a dialogue in higher education about offering more distance learning courses and has charged higher education leaders to look for ways that institutions can cut costs and increase economic efficiency. The 2007 Chronicle of Higher Education’s For Profit Higher Education Index indicated that publicly traded education corporations such as Strayer Education Inc., and Laureate Education Inc., can be seen as long term investment opportunities and have proven to their investors that they can maintain enrollment, run efficiently and earn a profit. Kelly (2001) stated that “a growing number of traditional colleges and universities—under pressure to be more responsive to the needs of students, parents, employers and communities—are turning to some of the same entrepreneurial, customer-oriented approaches that have been used so successfully by for-profit institutions” (p. 2). Regardless of what strategies colleges use to meet enrollment goals, Kelly’s article revealed that for-profit institutions have been successful because people in our communities are demonstrating a need and a demand for education options outside of traditional daytime, face-to-face classes. If the number of high school graduates will be declining over the next few years, this is a perfect time for colleges and universities to take a look at how to attract and serve nontraditional students. The shifting demographics and the increase of distance learning course options also indicate that it may be time to rethink the traditional models of education delivery, and rather than focusing on traditional and nontraditional student populations, there may be some changes or services that are applicable to both groups, such as evening or distance learning classes.

The following is an overview of steps that colleges and universities can take to attract nontraditional students to their institution. This is not a comprehensive list of strategies but rather a high-level overview of several key factors admissions or enrollment professionals should be aware of when recruiting or developing services to support nontraditional students.

  • Discuss Cost Payment Plans at the Beginning: Nontraditional students vary in their methods of tuition payment. For example, some may pay out of pocket, some may use financial aid, and some may be grant and scholarship recipients. But these options are often limited for nontraditional students and especially for nontraditional graduate students. There are also many nontraditional students who participate in employer tuition reimbursement programs or who are military students seeking reimbursement through the programs set up through the G.I. bill. Given these different types of students, it is important for institutions to create a billing system that will allow for some flexibility. An example would be allowing students to set up a payment plan. Field (2008) discussed the education benefits now available to veterans, indicating that with the recent changes to the G.I. bill, veterans will now have enough aid to attend the most expensive public colleges in their states. However, Field found that veterans prefer community colleges and for-profit institutions because these institutions are convenient and cater to the needs of veterans. Kelly also indicated that veterans tend to be between the ages of 25 and 34, are often married, and are looking for education opportunities that will assist with building on the type of skills they learned while in the service. Many universities are competing for military students these days, and the trends outlined by Kelly indicate these students are looking for nontraditional programs that allow for online courses or evening and weekend class formats and will assist them with navigating their way through the tuition benefit process. Establishing more scholarship opportunities geared toward nontraditional students can also be a great marketing tool.
  • Ease Transfer Credit Process: According to the NCES 2004 report “Participation in Adult Education and Lifelong Learning,” a majority of nontraditional learners have some previously earned college credit. The 2004 NCES “Student Effort and Educational Progress Report” also indicated that approximately 30 percent of undergraduate students drop out before receiving a degree. Many colleges assume that applicants know about transfer credit and do not emphasize this option in their marketing materials or limit their recruiting of transfer students to attendance at community college transfer fairs. The college and university drop out rates however demonstrate that there is a large of population of adults who have some earned postsecondary credit and cannot be found on community college campuses. Given the concern about cost, transfer credit can provide an incentive to applicants because it will reduce the time and money it takes to complete a degree program; therefore, it is important that institutions make this process clear and easy to navigate by having this information available on their Web site and making sure this option is listed in their marketing materials.
  • Offer Credit for prior learning, CLEP, DANTES etc.: Many undergraduate completion programs geared towards nontraditional students also emphasis the different ways that students can earn course credit. If your institution does offer any type of credit for prior learning, accepts CLEP credit or military credits, this should be emphasized in all marketing materials for nontraditional students. It is important there is a clear indication of which courses cannot be fulfilled through transfer credit, CLEP, or some other method. This will help students up front as they prepare their program schedules. The following are Web sites that offer information on these different types of college credits:,, and
  • Offer Evening, Weekend and Online Courses: The NCES (2002) report found that of the adult student population, 57 percent are married, 53 percent support more than on dependent, 29 percent are single parents between the age of 30 and 40, 39 percent worked full time. Given these characteristics, it is important that institutions recognize that a large majority of nontraditional students have multiple responsibilities outside the classroom, so evening, weekend or distance learning course options are a necessity. It is also important to talk with students at the beginning of the program to set clear expectations regarding time management.
  • Connect Faculty and Curriculum to the Workplace: Kasworm (2003) discussed the idea that the changing perceptions of the workplace and world have increased the desire for people to attain higher education credentials. Kasworm indicated that having a bachelor’s degree is a basic requirement now for many entry level jobs. Scholars such as Malcolm Knowles (1977) and Stephen Brookfield (2005) have indicated that creating environments that allow adult learners to share their experiences and apply what they learn to their work or daily lives will help to drive the learning process. On the admissions end, applicants want to know that the courses they take will be applicable to their work and they want to know how the program they are enrolling in will assist them in meeting their career goals. Given what we know from the research on how adults learn, it is important the faculty understand how to integrate some of their class assignments into projects that students can apply to their area of interest or to their workplace. It is also important that admissions counselors have some career counseling skills and discuss with applicants how they can apply their classroom assignments to their workplace.
  • Offer Career Counseling Services: Kasworm (2003), also indicated that career advancement is one of the main reasons people go back to school or begin postsecondary degree programs. This is one area that for-profit institutions that serve nontraditional students tend to emphasis in their marketing materials. For example, National American University, Argosy University and Capella University all offer career services to their students and alumni. Providing resources that will assist students and graduates with resume writing, interviewing and strategies to assist with the job search is an important factor for nontraditional students; therefore, it is important to emphasize these resources to prospective students. Career counselors can also help make inroads with the local community by helping to organize job fairs, work with local businesses to develop internship opportunities. This can bring visibility to your institution. Many colleges and universities already offer this service to traditional students, so this would mean broadening the service to apply to students with different levels of experience and different types of career goals.
  • Offer Orientation and Community Building: McGivney (2004) found that many adult or nontraditional students have some apprehension about going back to school. For many, it may have been years since they have been in academic setting, or they may have had a negative experience the last time they were enrolled. Creating a sense of community is one way to combat the apprehension and let students know they are not alone and that there are other learners with similar backgrounds in the program. Vincent Tinto (1988) has led the research on the importance of social integration for undergraduate students in retention, and scholars like Ashar and Skenes (1993) and Kember (1994) have applied Tinto’s concepts to nontraditional settings and also found that integrating students into the programs at the beginning stages is an important part of retention. This means planning personalized points of contact with advisors, conducting a new student orientation and letting students exchange a dialogue between one another to build relationships and help support one another. While nontraditional students may not be as focused on the social aspect of higher education as traditional college students, they still want to feel that they belong and that they have a support network through the process.
  • Adopt Flexible Leave Policies: Institutions must adopt policies and procedures that address the special needs of nontraditional students. Nontraditional students represent a broad range of age groups; therefore, institutions need to be prepared to work with students who are having children, going through long-term illnesses, going on military leave, getting married, and experiencing other important life events. If students need to take a semester off, this process should be easy to understand and explained to students at the beginning of the program. While allowing students the ability to take time off without penalty is key, it also important to establish deadlines and regularly check-in with students who are on leave.
  • Schedule Regular Advising Sessions: Along with following up with students who are on leave, it is important to build in a contact schedule with nontraditional students. Establishing personal contact will help make students feel secure and welcome at your institution. Many nontraditional students do not have as many social opportunities with other students or staff outside of the classroom, so this personalized contact is important in establishing a sense of belonging. These ideas are all based on the information found by researchers like Vincent Tinto (1988), which emphasizes the importance of social and academic integration on retention.
  • Recruit in Businesses and Community: While high school visits make up the majority of recruiting efforts for many traditional college admissions counselors, visits with local business leaders and attendance at community events is essential to recruiting nontraditional students. As mentioned earlier, nontraditional students represent a broad range of characteristics and are difficult to locate in any one setting; therefore, to recruit nontraditional students, the key is to create diverse recruiting strategies. Career fairs, professional conferences, county fairs, chamber of commerce events and other community events such as art fairs and festivals are all forums for recruiting. Establishing contact with human resource departments at local businesses, locating those businesses that offer tuition reimbursement, and reaching out to business leaders to serve on program development teams or as speakers at on-campus events, and inviting business leaders to your institution for special community events are all activities that will help to bring visibility to your programs for nontraditional students. Alumni and current students also represent an audience for recruiting, so it is important to let your campus community know about your nontraditional course offerings so they can help spread the word among their families, co-workers and friends.
  • Include Nontraditionals in University Mission: In a 2005 report for the American Council on Education, Cook and King discussed practices that institutions can follow to improve the retention for low-income, nontraditional students who are pursuing postsecondary degrees. One concept that stood out in their report was making sure that institutions acknowledge nontraditional students within the organization’s mission or within the strategic plan. If attracting nontraditional students to your institution is a goal, the success of meeting this goal will depend on whether or not this student population is represented throughout the university and included within the overall mission of the institution.

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Becky Copper, M.A., is director of admissions at the Schools of Graduate and Professional Programs at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota. She is pursuing an Ed.D. degree at Saint Mary’s University, and she is focusing her research on topics related to student services for nontraditional students.

This article originally appeared in the December 2008 issue of SEM Source.