“For many, the typical image of a U.S college student remains locked on an 18-year-old, attending his or her first post-high school institution, living on campus, taking 15 credits or more each semester, and graduating in four years. […] The time has come to consider what can be done to better understand the needs of post-traditional students attending our institutions and to consider how to better evaluate and how to better help these post-traditional students achieve success.” – Starfish by Hobsons
The irony of the United States dedication to traditional collegiate tracks, is that over half of students attending public 4-year universities are non-traditional students. In fact, according to Starfish by Hobsons, only 43% of students attending public 4-year universities have none of the characteristics that would identify them as non/post-traditional. In other words, 57% of students can be described as post-traditional.
Starfish also asserts that undergraduates over 25 years of age can be considered post-traditional, which makes the percentage above a conservative estimate. Therefore, colleges should be catering to their non-traditional students with at least as much vigor as we do to our traditional students.
The University of Washington – Tacoma is unique in terms of public 4-year universities, because it happens to attract more non-traditional students than most. In a survey from 2015, over 60% of respondents claimed that they were financially independent (one of the characteristics of non-traditional students). And that’s not all. Further analysis reveals that over a quarter (26%) of undergraduates that have attended UWT were over 25 years old. Moreover, at least 40% of our historical undergrads attended part time at one point. Clearly, our campus hosts a very significant population of non-traditional students, and it appears that this trend will only become more prominent as post-traditional students transition into what Starfish calls “New Majority Students”.
“Institutions are seeing their post-traditional student enrollment increase for many reasons. Some institutions have launched intentional marketing efforts to draw them in. […] A quick search for “best school for non-traditional students” yields a plethora of websites, yet there is very little to provide objective guidance. There is no national body of statistics on which a potential enrollee can rely and most traditional institutions could not report any kind of “post-traditional graduation rate” or retention rate.” – Starfish by Hobsons
At UWT, we happen to have a significant population of both traditional and non-traditional students. Due to this, we have a chance to pioneer a more holistic approach to helping college students succeed.
Traditional vs. Non-Traditional Students
First of all, it’s important to note that being a non-traditional student does not make you “worse” than a traditional student. It simply means your circumstances are different. Despite this, however, there appears to be a general atmosphere in America that non-traditional – and particularly older students – are not as important as younger, traditional students. The lack of data on these more unorthodox students is just one example of our countries bias. Without a reliable source of data to pull upon, it is hard for colleges and universities to design structures that will actually help these students. Software like Civitas’ Illume definitely helps, but even that is not (yet) able to pull data on students based on factors such as hours worked per week, financial independence, and students with high school diplomas vs. GEDs.
Even so, we can try our best to gather data on post-traditional students. Surveys can do a great job of this. In the previous article we discussed the basic need insecurity report published by the Wisconsin HOPE lab. They found that “students who were independent for financial aid purposes were at higher risk of food insecurity compared to dependent students, and older students were at higher risk, too”. Additionally “student-parents appeared at much higher risk of food and housing insecurity than students without children”, with “more than half” of these students experiencing food and housing insecurity. This implies that the support these older, non-traditional students are getting is simply not enough. It’s a deadly cycle too. Food and housing insecurity makes it harder for students to focus on school, which can lead to lower grades, pushing students to take less credits. Moreover, many of these students have to work constantly in order to “stay afloat”. More work means less time for school – which in turn means less credits. Eventually these non-traditional students may be pushed into part time schedules, which we have seen greatly decreases retention rates. If you need any convincing of this, simply look at the data for older, part-time students:
As you can see, for older students going part time makes a huge difference. Their persistence rate drops from a reasonable 91% to a worrying 83%.
And so we try to push ourselves to take a full course load – at least 12 credits. But it isn’t that simple. Often times, students – and non-traditional ones in particular – cannot afford to take on a full time schedule, financially or time-wise. In her critically acclaimed book Paying the Price, Sara Goldrick-Rab relays the story of a student who experiences this very issue:
“Chloe did not realize it, but she was in danger of failing to meet her college’s satisfactory academic progress requirements: a C average and completion of 67 percent or more of cumulative attempted credits. […] Dropping a class would lower the ratio of courses that Chloe completed, and getting a bad grade in that class would lower her GPA. […] At that point in the semester, Chloe was about to face academic and therefore financial consequences for having attempted college without sufficient funds. She […] was exhausted from working long hours trying to pay for college and not doing nearly as well as she had hoped.”
In the example above, Chloe is caught in a Catch-22. Her long work hours are needed so she can pay for her college, yet they also make attending college harder for her. If she were to drop a class to remedy this problem, she would not meet her college’s completion requirement. Additionally, her financial aid would be lowered significantly – forcing her to work more as a result. On the other hand, if she doesn’t drop a class it seems extremely likely that she will receive a failing grade – which will also cause her to not meet her college’s requirements. In colloquial terms: You’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t.
Part Time Difficulties
In the end, Chloe decided to drop out of college. The stress it caused her has even made her unsure if she will go back. This is an unfortunate ending, but we can help prevent more stories like this one if we push for a reform of the system.
We know that part time students have a much lower retention rate relative to our other student populations. Due to this, we have enacted national movements dedicated to getting our countries students to take more credits. For now, a student’s best bet is to take as many credits as possible. But for students like Chloe – for whom this goal is not always achievable – this reality often means dropping out of college all-together. In other words, our dedication to bringing part time students into full time schedules is marginalizing a portion of potential students who just can’t afford to be a full time student. Sometimes the best situation is not always the most realistic one.
Additionally, penalizing students for not reaching this credit quota is not helping either. Since 2015, only 16% of full time students at UWT have received less than $9,000 of cumulative aid. This is in contrast to the almost 28% of part time students that received less than $9k.
This trend is prevalent no matter where you look: part time students simply receive less aid than their full time counterparts. Upon close analysis, however, this line of reasoning seems counter-intuitive. Yes, part time students are technically paying less for the classes themselves – but life circumstances and the cost of other things (such as textbooks) make the lower course costs much less significant. Taking yet another excerpt from Paying the Price, Goldrick-Rab aptly describes this problem that many students face when attending part-time.
“While tuition varies linearly by the credit hour, other college costs do not. For example, while students taking fewer courses may not need to buy as many books, the books they do need are not necessarily less expensive. Moreover, living costs must still be covered, and students taking even a few courses often have to work only part time rather than full time, which […] does not pay as much on an hourly basis and rarely comes with benefits.”
Thus, I assert that in many situations, part time students will actually require aid in amounts equal to or greater than that which full time students are granted. Especially considering that part time students account for a significant number of non-traditional students, prioritizing them and their difficulties seems to be a smart course of action. While it is definitely nice for students to be able to attend full time, that is not always possible – and we shouldn’t give up on students who can’t commit to that schedule.
It’s important for us as students to realize this as well. We oftentimes think of part-time attendees as being lazy or unmotivated – but we do not know their circumstances. Just as it is our universities job to make attending college easier financially (among other things), it is our job to cultivate a culture of accepting students from all backgrounds, for it is everyone’s right to receive a quality education. Similar to how no student should be discriminated by race or religion, nor should they be scrutinized for choosing to take fewer credits.
Post-Tradition as a Whole
While part time students do account for a significant portion of non-traditional students – they do not encompass the group as a whole. Far from it, in fact. As we have seen, there are several different characteristics that could describe a person as “post-traditional”. However, we have also seen that many of these traits have not been documented with as much rigor as, say, part time students. This data is vital in order for us to accurately locate student issues and in turn remedy them. Universities are finally starting to come around to the idea of doing data analysis on not only traditional students, but non-traditional students as well. But there is a very recent, and relevant, dilemma keeping any in-depth analysis from progressing too far: A new awareness over the importance of privacy, and in particular, our mounting movement against “Big Data”.
Over the past few years, America – young ones especially – has become slowly but dramatically aware of an alarming breach of privacy. And for good reason. Here is just a few of the most infamous privacy scandals that have occurred over the past decade.
- The Patriot Act in general
- Cambridge Analytica
- The Edward Snowden Debacle
- The FBI vs. Apple debate
- That Sony Picture hack
- The more recent Equifax breach
And that doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of all the hacks, breaches, and misconducts regarding our privacy and data. In fact, I bet you can think of several high profile cases that were not featured in the above list. This has led many people to have very strong feelings – typically negative – of the collection and/or use of what we now know of as “Big Data”. Despite this, most people strangely don’t bother to do anything to actually increase their online security short of taping up their webcam. This relationship of strong feelings yet small actions is so perplexing that an actual scientific study has been conducted – in which they dub it “the privacy paradox”.
Now you may be thinking, “how does this relate to academica”? The answer is simple. Collegiate institutions are collecting your data too. And while I can attempt to assure you that this data is only being used for your benefit – that argument has been used in practically every privacy debate ever, and we have seen the flaws in the logic. So now is the time for us students to help define rules on collecting our data. As of writing this, there are for all intensive purposes, no structured frameworks, laws, or regulations (at least on a wide-spread scale) on collecting student demographic data. That is beginning to change, however, and it is up to us to give our input before it is too late.
What data is OK for colleges to track, collect, and analyze? Should we be allowed to connect this data with actual students? Can we contact these students based on data (such as encouraging emails to students who are predicted to have a low graduation rate)? These are all questions we need to ask ourselves, and once we have an answer, communicate to our institutions. Don’t fall victim to the privacy paradox!