Engagement Key to Retaining Non-Traditional College Students

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Determining which returning adult students are at risk of dropping out of college is a complex process, according to results from a recent national survey.

Common data points — such as demographics, choice of major, and hours devoted to studying — can’t reliably predict whether a nontraditional student will struggle to complete their degree.

As it turns out, the most dependable factor for identifying at-risk non-traditional students is the extent to which they make effective connections to their college, a factor that can be difficult to measure. After all, the very students who are most in danger of dropping out often have limited contact with professors, peers, and college staff, according to a recent report from Barnes & Noble College Insights — a division of the bookseller that produces quantitative and qualitative research related to higher education.

“Schools may be able to find some of these students within their existing systems — through the financial aid office, for example, or through any feedback mechanisms in place for students using campus services,” the study notes. “However, some proactive outreach to students and faculty likely will be necessary for any school serious about tracking down and working more closely with at-risk non-traditional students.”

Meeting the needs of non-traditional students will only become more important in the years to come. National data show that 40 percent of today’s college students are 25 or older, and the number of non-traditional college students is projected to increase more than twice as fast as traditional students from 2012 to 2022.

To learn more about the needs of this growing student population, researchers asked current college students about their experiences in higher education. The survey pool included more than 1,000 traditional students and nearly 800 non-traditional students.

Almost twice as many non-traditional students were at risk of dropping out of school compared to their traditional peers, survey results showed.

“The good news is that non-traditional students are accustomed to overcoming obstacles. They are resilient. Many are thriving,” study authors note. “It’s possible to help at-risk non-traditional students move beyond the challenges they’re facing and turn around negative experiences. But, it requires a proactive effort to find, engage, and work with these students.”

Read the full study — which includes tips to boost student engagement — and check out NACAC’s advice for adult students returning to college.

Admitted writer/editor Mary Stegmeir welcomes additional comments and story ideas at mstegmeir@nacacnet.org.

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