+1 (978) 744-8828 Email Us  

Recruiting Intelligence

The Non-traditional Student Advantage Part 4: Born This Way or Transformed?


Growth-minded institutions are taking a long, hard look at their approach to non-traditional students. 

This is part 4 in our 5-part blog series on reaching and enrolling non-traditional students. Here are links to part 1, part 2, and part 3.

Truth is, courting and supporting non-traditional students has been part of the mix for decades. Most institutions of higher learning have embraced this broad swath of students. For some, the non-traditional market segment was part of their original focus. We think of them as “born this way.” For others, they are demonstrating market adaptability. We call these institutions “transformed.”  

 Which type is your institution? 

 Both have strengths to embrace and challenges to overcome. 

This ebook provides a very comprehensive look at non-traditional students. Many adult learners think that they are too late, too old, and will not fit in. In reality, there are more non-traditional students than traditional pursuing their education. Marketing to this audience is challenging as they are often working full-time and may lack the confidence to go back to school. This book offers real strategies that we should all consider.  ~ Dr. Richard Carter, Associate Vice President for Global Engagement at University in South Alabama 

Read on to take a closer look at these two roads to an institutional identity that embraces non-traditional students. We will consider the strengths and weaknesses associated with each route, while also offering food for thought about your own path. 

“Born This Way” Institutions 

For some institutions, non-traditional students have always been the majority. 

Take community colleges. The 1,000+ community colleges operating in the US today are serving a diverse student body – and always have. Consider the community college student body breakdown, per the American Association of Community Colleges: 

  • 30% are first generation to attend college 
  • 16% are single parents 
  • 5% are veterans 
  • 21% have a disability 
  • 34% are enrolled full time, and of those 21% work full time and 40% work part time 
  • 66% are enrolled part time, and of those 38% work full time and 34% work part time 

Community colleges operate on the principle of educating everyone, and that mission is nothing new. Other examples of “born this way” programs: two-year institutions, online universities, massive open online courses (MOOCs), and code academies. 

What “born this way” institutions tend to get right for non-traditional students: 

  • Prospective non-traditional students can feel confident that they will feel welcome. 
  • Faculty and staff are familiar with the needs of non-traditional students. 
  • Curricula were developed with non-traditional students in mind. 
  • Student services are tailored to the needs of the non-traditional segment most represented in their student body. 

Challenges facing “born this way” institutions: 

  • Competition from bigger-name schools. 
  • Struggles with student cohesion / creating a sense of shared community. 
  • Disruptions to student progress. 

“Transformed” Institutions 

Non-traditional students are a newer market segment for many four-year colleges and universities. Over the years, transformed institutions have seen incremental changes to their student bodies and have adjusted accordingly. The pandemic obviously spurred things along for many, forcing them to take a closer look at how they delivered services and to whom. 

During their slow metamorphosis, transformed institutions have needed to retrofit their curricula, facilities, and identity to meet the changing needs of their students. Classrooms may have been built with on-site learners in mind, lacking remote-access features. Online learning programs may still be getting up to speed. Career services may cater to the needs of students seeking their first jobs, not those mid-career. Faculty may have certain expectations about who they are likely to be teaching and be unforgiving of the real-world challenges non-traditional students face. The institution’s branding and admissions processes may be geared toward teenage prospects and their parents. 

The challenges are surmountable and many transformed institutions have done a great job of adapting – often serving non-traditional students just as well, or better, than “born this way” schools. While most transformed institutions were established with a narrowly defined student body in mind, most of them have enthusiastically embraced casting a wider net. Still, their challenges and advantages differ from those of institutions that started with non-traditional students in mind. 

What “transformed” institutions tend to get right for non-traditional students: 

  • Many have superior name recognition or a prestigious reputation. 
  • Many offer a more “classic” university experience. 
  • Many have a more entrepreneurial mindset and adapt to changing student needs faster.

Challenges facing “transformed” institutions: 

  • Non-traditional students may feel uncertain of their place in the community. 
  • They have many competing budget demands. 
  • The ongoing need to train faculty in non-traditional student needs and learning styles. 
  • Many experience insufficient buy-in and support from leadership and faculty.

Where do you fit? 

Of course, not all institutions fit neatly into either category. It can be helpful to think of “born this way” and “transformed” as a spectrum of non-traditional history and outlook. A strong “born this way” program and a highly evolved “transformed” peer institution may have a lot in common, the same way a “born this way” program (think extension programs) within a larger, “transformed” institution can have a mix of the strengths and weaknesses of both groups.  

The important takeaway is not a label for your institution, but the value of examining where you have strengths to offer and challenges to overcome. Your institution’s historical relationship with non-traditional students will color where you are today – so take a long look at where you started and where you want to go. And then consider your community demographics.   

What do you have to offer the non-traditional students most likely to find you? How might you be making yourself a more attractive prospect? How can you make the non-traditional students you have already enrolled feel more confident and comfortable?  

Word-of-mouth will aid your recruitment efforts tremendously. After all, mid-career students will talk to their colleagues. Students with children will talk to other parents. It’s important they have good things to say. But there is more to it, of course.  

Whether your institution was born this way or is transforming into a non-traditional student haven, making the commitment to educating students of all types is the biggest step. And, if you need help staying the course (it can be so easy to veer off path), or need support convincing leadership, be in touch. We’ll help keep you on the straight and narrow as you look for ways to perfect your execution.  

Want our non-traditional student recruitment ebook now? Click HERE. Two versions available with 9 case studies. The complete version available to Intead Plus subscribers provides a sample marketing plan, student personas, and more.  

Next week is our fifth and final post in this series. It’s all about how to reach the non-traditional student. You won’t want to miss this grand finale! 

Intead Plus Info »

Email this post to a colleague »