In the last decade, more students are enrolling in college. According to National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), from 1997 to 2007, enrollment in degree-granting institutions increased by 26 percent from 14. 5 million to 18. 2 million (2009). Much of this growth was in full-time student enrollment, 34 percent; while the number of part-time students increased by 15 percent (NCES, 2009). This increase, in part, can be attributed to a national population boom largely due to an increase in immigration (“10 Predications”, 2005).
While 25% of adults in the United States have a bachelor’s degree, half of American adults have never attended college, even though an increasing number of careers now require some form of postsecondary credentials (“10 Predications”, 2005). Due to the increasing educational demands of entry-level positions, more adults will be interested in attending college for the first time to increase their employability.
This population has and will continue to play a major role in the college enrollment boom. According to the NCES, enrollment of students aged 25 and over is estimated to increase by 19 percent from 2006-2017; whereas enrollment of students under 25 is only projected to increase by 10 percent (2009). This older, adult population is many times referred to as non-traditional in postsecondary educational settings.
This student group is very diverse and meets the non-traditional student criteria when one or more of the following qualities are met: (a) student has responsibility for the care of another, such as a child or elderly relative; (b) student is employed more than 20 hours per week; (c) student is over the age of 25; (d) student is independent of parents; and (e) student has a delay between high school and college attendance (Purslow & Belcastro, 2006).
Zhai and Monzon (2001) would include two additional criteria to the list: student resides off campus, and student is enrolled on a part-time basis. According to Purslow and Belcastro, 73 percent of all undergraduate students fall into this category, making this non-traditional group the new majority group on college campuses (2006). While college enrollment increases, retention, persistence, and completion rates continue to lag.
According to Conley (2008), “only about 35 percent of students who entered four year colleges seeking a bachelor’s degree in 1998 had earned their degree four years later, and only about 56 percent had graduated six years later” (p. 23). According to the NCES (2009) 58 percent of first-time students seeking a bachelors degree graduate within six years. The numbers are more dismal for two-year institutions. According to Zhai and Monzon (2001) only 38 percent of students in a two-year institution will graduate.
Retention is a complex topic that research has shown has many different variables that factor into the equation. Opp and Colby (1986) pointed to a number of internal and external factors that affect a student’s persistence. External factors included insufficient funds to meet educational, living and personal expenses, work demand and conflicts, housing, roommate or transportation problems, social demands, including those made by personal relationships, and family obligations (Opp & Colby, 1986).
Internal factors included procrastination and other self-management problems, inability to ask for help, fear of failure, loneliness, self-doubt, value conflicts, and career indecision (Opp & Colby, 1986). They also went on to identify certain groups that are more at-risk for not being retained than others. These included new to postsecondary education, academically underprepared for college-level work, undecided about their major or career plans, economically disadvantaged, and first-generation college students (Opp & Colby, 1986).
Rendon (1995) breaks retention into two categories: student-related barriers and institution-related barriers. Student-related barriers include low SES, poor academic preparation, lack of clarity in defining academic goals, psycho-social factors such as self-doubt, low self-esteem, doubts about being college material, trauma associated with making the transition to college, and unfamiliarity with the higher education system (Rendon, 1995).
Institution-related barriers result when institutions are not equipped to educate or accommodate for diversity, which creates an invalidating environment for students that do not ‘fit the mold’ (Rendon, 1995). MacKinnon-Slaney (1994) examined students’ personal issues, learning issues, and environmental issues and how these factors relate to retention. Personal issues includes a student’s self-awareness, willingness to delay gratification, clarification of career and life goals, mastery of life transitions, and sense of interpersonal competence (MacKinnon-Slaney, 1994).
The author argues that if a student is more self-aware of the positive and negative consequences of entering college, has the ability to delay gratification, is clear and committed to career and life goals as well as believes that education is the way to accomplish those goals, and feels a sense of control over his or her environment, then the student is more likely to be retained. MacKinnon-Slaney’s learning issues includes two areas: educational competence and intellectual and political competence (1994).
Educational competence is the student’s ability to re-learn how to be a successful learner; mastery of time management, mnemonic devices, memory skills, the SQ3R reading method, advances in technology, learning styles, and study skills, as well as the ability to adapt to minor transitions that occur with the change of each new semester, new courses, and new instructors, all of which becomes a large part of the competence in the academic arena (MacKinnon-Slaney, 1994).
Intellectual and political competence has to do with the student’s ability to understand the political nature of education and their ability to adapt to the climate of college. Students that have the ability to master being a successful student and to acculturate to a college will be more successful. MacKinnon-Slaney’s environmental issues include information retrieval, awareness of hindrances and opportunities, and the compatibility of the student with the institutional environment (1994).
This area examines a student’s ability to be aware of the possible institutional opportunities and barriers and their ability to critically problem solve by asking the right questions and persisting in finding the answers. This area concludes by examining how the non-traditional student feels in their physical educational environment, for example, does adequate lighting exist, are the desks large enough to accommodate my size, or is student parking available and accessible (MacKinnon-Slaney, 1994).
Many of these factors relate to the topic of customer service and whether the non-traditional student believes that the institution values its group (Hadfield, 2003). The higher the degree of customer service; the more this group feels validated, which results in the student being retained (Hadfield, 2003). Zhai and Monzon (2001) recognize student characteristics, student-institutional interaction, academic aptitude and performance, level of aspiration and motivation, institutional type, image, student services offered, student involvement, and sense of belonging and ‘fit’ to their retention equation at community colleges.
Zhai and Monzon (2001) examined three groups of students that were not retained: (a) students who apply but do not enroll; (b) students who withdraw during the semester; and (c) students who do not persist in the following semester. They found that students who apply but do not enroll are more likely to be male, younger, African American or Latino, part or full time workers, have lower high school GPAs, and have lower incomes (Zhai & Monzon, 2001). Students who withdrew during the semester tend to be female, older, and part or full time workers (Zhai & Monzon, 2001).
And finally, students whom do not persist tend to be younger, part or full time workers, have higher GPAs, and have higher incomes (Zhai & Monzon, 2001). Zhai and Monzon (2001) found that conflict with work schedule, enrollment at another school, personal reasons, financial difficulties, and family obligations were cited as the main reasons for not persisting. Purslow and Belcastro (2006) have identified three main components that factor into retention: foundational needs, relationships, and relevance.
Foundational needs are basic needs that will prevent a student from entering or being successful in college, for example, childcare, financial aid, scheduling options, varying method of instruction, safety, convenience, flexible and available services, location and schedule (Purslow & Belcastro, 2006). Non-traditional students must be able to access student services when needed. According to Purslow and Belcastro, relationships with academic peers, faculty, and staff are at the core of the three main components and are consistent throughout a student’s educational experience (2006).
Students need to have the ability to develop new relationships while modify existing ones with family and friends in order to be successful (Purslow & Belcastro, 2006). Initially the majority of relationships is between the student and the student affairs staff, but as the student gets closer to their degree attainment the relationship with the faculty increases (Purslow & Belcastro, 2006). Purslow and Belcastro discuss relevance for the non-traditional students (2006). Non-traditional students need to have a clear purpose or real world application for their learning in order to be more successful.
Institutions can foster this by incorporating class-based activities, collaborative learning, capstone projects, and learning experiences beyond the classroom, including internships, service learning, study abroad, and related opportunities (Purslow & Belcastro, 2006). All three components are necessary to increase a student’s retention. Based on the literature on the student factors that influence retention, many of the authors highlighted best practices that institutions could adapt to try to increase retention.
Many of their suggestions incorporated a holistic approach including the areas of academic, student affairs, and institutional environment. Opp and Colby (1986) identified seven areas that colleges should emphasize: (a) academic stimulation and assistance; (b) personal future building; (c) out-of-class faculty interaction; (d) mandatory testing and placement; (e) orientation programs; (f) peer instruction; and (g) integrated support services.
MacKinnon-Slaney (1994) proposed six implications of her research including (a) development of an at-risk student checklist; (b) comprehensive delivery of services, rather than a band-aid approach; (c) support staff and faculty can alert students to issues that may arise in the educational experience; (d) professional development needs to focus on needs of non-traditional students; (e) non-traditional students need to be able to access counseling services where they are able to labeling feelings, process climate and gain a sense that they are not alone; and (f) the development of a comprehensive extended orientation program or support group that would encourage persistence. Zhai and Monzon (2001), based on their research, concluded that in order to retain more community college students, colleges need to offer more flexible class schedule, increase hours of operation of student support services, make financial aid information more available to students, strengthen academic counseling services, and improve on campus parking. Purslow and Belcastro (2006) developed best practices in each area of their proposed framework.
Best practices in foundational needs included all students having equal access to the institutional resources; gathering and using data on non-traditional students to inform and evaluate policy; implementing student centered services for non-traditional students, for example, call centers, non-daytime student services, using technology to provide relevant and timely information; offering deferred payment options; and creating a safe and healthy learning environment and curriculum (Purslow & Belcastro, 2006). Best practices in relationships included helping to establish a sense of community; ensuring mission is inclusive; providing opportunity to work with faculty in and out of classroom; providing opportunity for community-based and service learning; providing common learning communities; conducting community-based recruiting activities; making advising accessible and convenient; and using admission practices that address personal needs and concerns of adults (Purslow & Belcastro, 2006).
Best practices in relevance included discussing career plans with faculty and advisors; providing authentic and relevant academic opportunities; designing curriculum that better integrates industry- based standards; offering prior learning assessments and challenge exams (Purslow & Belcastro, 2006). After reviewing the literature on factors that influence student retention and suggestions of best practices, I have contemplated my own professional experience, both as an administrator and an instructor, as well as the students that I have previously served. I primarily have worked with a low-income, first generation, non-traditional student population. Regardless of their age, these students definitely met at least one or more of the criteria that Purslow, Belcastro, Zhai and Monzon identified.
Actually most of the student population that I have served met all of the criteria that are listed. Academically speaking most of the students have been very underprepared and have remedial needs in reading, writing, and math. Most have never been to college before and lack the internal and external support to navigate the system. The students that I have worked with are entering a new world upon starting their college experience and almost all of them feel ill-equipped to successfully manage their experience. Most have had a negative past experience with education, whether that was in the P-12 system or previous college attendance. As a result, many of these students lack the self-confidence that is needed to be successful.
Many of the students have very complicated lives where many of their basic needs are not consistently met; but for all of the at-risk factors that many of the students that I have worked with displayed, many have a determination to improve their current life situations and believe that education is one of the only ways to accomplish that goal. These students make a strong commitment to their education and they persist semester after semester. So, many of the factors that affect student retention in the literature, I can attest to through my professional experience. As for best practices, I believe that the approach needs to be comprehensive and holistic in order to be effective.
I believe that it needs to address the student in a personal and academic context as well as the educational institution, its policies, procedures, and culture pertaining to non-traditional students. In my opinion, the place where one starts to develop a strong retention program begins with the development of the student/staff/faculty relationship as well as a strong orientation/first year experience program. Based on my professional experienced, I have witnessed a best practices retention program that consisted of a more intrusive case management model that incorporated many of the literature reviews recommendations. Student retention as a result of this program was around 68- 70 percent for a five year period. A future discussion of that program will be included in a follow-up paper.
Retention, persistence and completion rates are the new buzz words in the educational arena. Throughout this paper, I have reviewed the current literature on the definition of non-traditional students, factors that influence student retention, and suggestions for best practices in student retention. This research has brought to light new perspectives and thinking regarding this topic; however, it has not equaled much progress in regards to the completion statistics that institutions report. More research needs to be conducted and best practices implemented in order to make a larger impact with students’ retention.
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