Many of us are likely familiar with the following scenario: there’s a person in your lecture that looks like they just don’t belong. They look a bit older than everyone else in the room, and they ask an awful lot of questions, usually prefaced by a story about when they were a student.
No, I don’t mean the professor standing at the front of the room; I’m talking about the older student sitting in the crowd. They are not as common as a traditional-age student (18-24), but they are rapidly becoming a larger portion of the student population. I have a few of these stories myself, but now I have an alternate perspective — I’m now considered a “nontraditional” student.
I am 27 years old and pursuing my third degree. I have a bachelor’s in classics, a master’s in education and now I’m back pursuing a bachelor’s in finance. Now that I’m in this position, I can see why there aren’t more of these older adult learners in college classrooms. However, by implementing more scheduling flexibility and focusing on building a community of these older students on campus, UT could truly become a powerhouse for educating students of all ages and backgrounds.
Older students, frequently called “nontraditional” students, not only look different from their typical college-age peers, but they also have different needs. Since these students are older, they frequently experience “interrole conflict” that is rarely present in the lives of traditional students. It’s difficult for these students to juggle multiple roles simultaneously, such as being a student while also being a spouse, parent, caretaker for an aging parent, full-time employee or potentially a combination of these.
My husband Nick and I both are actually nontraditional students, so we have to juggle the roles of being good spouses and good students, making time for each other but also for our coursework. Dealing with some or all of these roles takes an enormous amount of time, mostly during the day, which leaves little time for in-person classes. In fact, when Nick was first thinking about going back to school, we decided together that he would need to quit his full-time job to pursue his degree. All of his classes at that time, even the general education ones, were in-person and during the day when he would have been working, so he would have had to be in two places at once.
To better serve nontraditional students, one of the most important things an institution like UT can do is to be flexible, primarily in class scheduling. Online classes are significantly easier for these students to do while managing their multiple roles, as are evening classes. Through the COVID-19 pandemic, we have learned that UT is able to carry on nearly all its courses online, so even once this is over, UT could have at least a section of each course be online. Simply making this switch could have a huge impact on UT’s ability to attract and retain nontraditional students.
Making the decision to go back to school as a nontraditional student is difficult in itself, but being the “older student” in the room can also be incredibly difficult socially. Many nontraditional students report feeling isolated and lonely with few peers their age, to which Nick and I can both relate. We both look young and can “pass” as typical undergraduates, but it is nearly impossible to find other nontraditional students on purpose.
UT’s current response to this concern of being “the only adult student” on campus is to say, “No way! Each year, more than 200 adult students enroll at the University of Tennessee.” This response actually made me laugh, since there were over 29,000 students enrolled at UT last year. If UT had a group specifically designed for nontraditional students, it could help with these feelings of isolation and lack of connection to the institution. It’s amazing that an organization like this doesn’t already exist! The better connected these students are to each other and to UT, the more likely they are to succeed.
As of right now, UT has a long way to go in improving its relationship with nontraditional students. However, if the institution takes some relatively small steps, like being more flexible with scheduling options and deliberately increasing social engagement for nontraditional students, UT could truly live up to that statement “Vol Means All” and welcome all students, not just the traditional ones.
Sarah Mize is a sophomore majoring in finance. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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