Helping nontraditional students overcome challenges amid COVID-19

The pandemic has further complicated the higher ed experience for nontraditional students but student affairs teams are scaling their services to provide this resilient student segment greater support.
By: | October 23, 2020
Getty Images: Jasper ColeGetty Images: Jasper Cole

In normal times, many nontraditional students enter college each with their own set of new student obstacles whether that be managing college courses on top of a full-time job, children at home or aging parents who depend on them. And while life experience also makes nontraditional students resilient, the massive shifts happening across today’s campuses mean that their challenges have intensified with many juggling more responsibilities than ever.

Cooper Jones, Rah Rah

Cooper Jones, Rah Rah

In addition to furthering their education amid current hybrid and virtual campus learning models, nontraditional students may be tasked with supervising their children’s online classes or running extra errands for elderly parents who must follow strict social distancing measures. Not to mention there are more than 50 million Americans who have lost their job and are struggling to cover monthly expenses, much less make tuition payments.

Because nontraditional learners typically have more obligations than the traditional 18-year-old straight out of high school, and often commute to and from campus, nontraditional students are often more susceptible to falling behind, taking longer to graduate or, worse yet, abandoning their dreams of earning a college degree. As the COVID-19 crisis has only exacerbated these issues, institutions and, in particular, student affairs organizations are re-examining how they are serving their nontraditional students – an issue that has long been on their radar but today is even more critical.

Whether it is specialized academic, career or financial aid resources designed for their specific stage in life, or on-campus housing and daycare centers, student affairs groups have been doing amazing things to make the college experience both relevant and meaningful for nontraditional students—and all under the pandemic and remote learning lens. This includes introducing new ways to help this growing group of students integrate into campus life and serve them remotely.

When campuses closed in the midst of the 2020 spring semester, many students experienced a nearly complete loss of campus engagement. This put a spotlight on the ways universities can scale and extend their digital services.

Student affairs organizations are doing just this—bending their services to not just accommodate but thrive amid the pandemic—from ensuring campus events have a virtual component or implementing a virtual option for as many services as possible. Now, universities have a unique opportunity to go beyond the confines of campus through partnerships and with technology that centralizes access to student resources and events to make it easier for students who are trying to manage other life responsibilities to also navigate the college experience.

For example, streamlining digital access to academic advising and career services is critical for nontraditional students to utilize support designed to fit their unique needs. This includes expediting the process for a student who is an armed services veteran to access online mentoring programs or make an appointment to discuss financial planning resources. These services help support a successful college experience.

Food and housing insecurity can be an issue for all types of students. In one pre-COVID survey, nearly half of the student respondents from 100 institutions had been food insecure in the past 30 days, it’s increasingly important to enable easier access to the expanded hours or offerings at campus food pantries, food delivery or meal pick up on or off-campus. Simplifying the process of connecting students with local food bank organizations through partnerships and online access can help mitigate food insecurity and also help ensure a student’s anonymity.

Anonymity can also be critical for mental health services, a need that has grown with the pandemic. The number of university and telehealth partnerships is growing but we also must ensure that these resources are easy to find. Doing so will help student affairs to meet all students where they are and provide comprehensive capabilities and other easily accessible support services.

Higher education is adapting in the face of the pandemic’s impacts and many of the changes will be with us for a long time to come as students will demand greater holistic digital services. Universities that cater to nontraditional learners in this area have much to gain as research has shown online institutions experienced significant growth when they focused on the adult learner market. In addition, past economic downturns have driven an increase in nontraditional students entering higher education programs.

To fully embrace and support nontraditional students, colleges and universities must continue to invest in digital strategies and technologies that make the college experience as seamless as possible. With online learning models now serving as the standard across college campuses during the pandemic, this growing group of the student body is searching for post-secondary programs that fit both their budget and their lifestyle. Ultimately, student affairs has an opportunity to scale and extend their programs and services that not only attract nontraditional students but keep them on a successful path toward their college degree.

Cooper Jones is CEO and co-founder of Rah Rah, a community engagement system created to simplify and improve campus engagement.