Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Day 60 - What Colleges Should Do to Attract More Non-Traditional Students

I attend a great university....not a mediocre or well-known school, but a university that ranks high in every important poll because it provides a truly outstanding education at a reasonable price in an ideal setting. I am here because a uniquely dedicated professor recruited me to come back to school after a very long absence - 29 years. It took nearly three years and a lot of talking, but that professor never gave up, and here I am to blog about what it means to be a non-traditional student.

I mention all this so you can understand how much I adore Murray State University. But, I also have a bone to pick with my soon-to-be "Alma Mater." MSU provides virtually no support to non-traditional students. Nada. Zip. Zilch. It's like being masterfully seduced and then dumped into an environment you're not really ready to handle. Hmmmm. Sounds just like the way a traditional freshman might feel. N'est pas? My non-traditional peers are managing multiple jobs, babies and other family obligations - and school - yet there is nothing in the way of added support for us here at MSU or any other university.

If MSU hopes to increase enrollment to 12,000 students in the next two years, then certainly a significant number of new students could - and should - be non-traditionals. We already make up a large percentage of graduate school enrollments. This largely untapped segment offers many potential new students - if only they provided the support services we non-traditionals really need.

Here's what Colleges and Universities should be doing for their non-traditional students:

1. Help us find one another. The main drawback to being a "different" kind of student on a standard campus is feeling isolated and out-of- place. Non-traditionals can easily provide moral and other kinds of support to one another - that is, if we could find each another. We get lost here.

At the beginning of each academic year, most universities make a tremendous effort to welcome and acclimate their incoming freshmen, sometimes even transfer students. MSU offers the outstanding "Great Beginnings Program," for example. This works well for traditional freshmen, but it excludes (and possibly even ostracizes) non-traditional students, many of whom are also new students. Wouldn't it be easy and cost-effective to organize a non-traditional "mixer" around the first evening of classes, just for an hour or two? This would allow fellow non-traditionals to meet, greet and connect.

2. Create an email distribution list and share it. Invite us all to join an online Facebook group or start a Wiki or another type of online community we can talk to one another in and discuss common challenges...anything to allow us to feel connected to this campus community. At the proposed "mixer," groups or clubs for subsets of non-traditionals would naturally be formed. How about one just for working parents, or study groups based on academic focus, or a grad students-only group that supported each others research? We also need to share our ideas on time management with peers who are also working full-time jobs and trying to manage class assignments - among other things.

3. Provide Child Care. I sometimes feel that I am unique among even the non-traditionals, because unlike most non-traditional students I know, I don't have a family. As challenging as going back to grad school has been for me working both full and part-time jobs, I cannot begin to imagine how hard it must be to care for young children - heck, any children - and still succeed in school. I believe every major university has an Education Department, filled with students learning about elementary education. Why not enlist interns or GAs or student volunteers who want and need to learn about child care and classroom management? Let them provide three to four hours of child care in the late afternoon/early evening (4:00 - 8:00 pm) on weekdays when non-traditionals are on campus attending classes. This wouldn't be difficult to arrange. I know it would help so many non-traditional students. Perhaps if such services were offered, they would entice more potential students to pursue degrees.

4. Give Us Better Tech Support. The Internet, MyGate, MSU Libraries, all seems familiar and easy for younger students who grew up in this computer and information age, but this is not always the case with us non-traditional (OK, older) students. Offer us some computer counseling or a Help Desk (IT) person of our own, anything that might bring us up-to-date technologically. We are likely to attend a couple of short sessions in the evening or something on a Saturday afternoon, but we'll settle for a few web-based tutorials that don't make us feel like dummies.

5. Create a Community for Us. One of MSU's best-kept secrets is the obscure non-traditional student's lounge located in Ordway Hall. It was put there so that commuter students would have a place to hang out between classes. If you stop by this lounge, it will likely be empty. What a waste. The lounge was never publicized to the students it was created for, and it's not what we really need or want. MSU offers many places for anyone to hang out between classes - the quad, the coffee shops, the Curris Center, lounges in all the Colleges, and of course, Waterfield Library. That's not something we non-traditionals lack. What we do need are core services that make completing classwork feasible within the confines of our schedules - days crammed with many other responsibilities.

Don't get me wrong. Being a non-traditional student is awesome. It is invigorating, often exciting and always motivating. I feel more alive and more connected to the world and its infinite possibility than I have in years. Going back to school has allowed me to be immersed in learning, surrounded by youthful thinking and innovative ideas. There is so much wisdom and knowledge to be gained the second time around. But, yes, it is also a challenge. I would like to plant the seeds of change or even be a part of some changes that will benefit future non-traditional students.

Given the state of the economy, there's never been a better time to pursue an advanced degree or to go back and finish an undergraduate degree.

What do you think? Should I work this up as a Letter to the Editor of our local student newspaper? Here's an idea - What if The MSU News had a regular column for and/or about non-traditional students? That would be nice start.

Is anybody out there reading? Sigh. I can only hope.

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