Why Are Nontraditional Students So Much Happier in College?

| TBS Staff

Are you ready to discover your college program?

It turns out that nontraditional students are having a great time in school. According to recent findings, the vast majority of nontraditional learners are satisfied with their college experience. If you're an adult learner, an online student, or both, chances are that your college education is going pretty well right now.

I'm really happy for you.

No, I mean it. Sorry if that sounded sarcastic. It's just that I was a traditional college student. Like a great many undergraduate students in America, I was eighteen years old, fresh out of high school, and from pretty much the minute I arrived at my four-year public university, I felt like I was getting ripped off.

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And if a recent survey included in the 2017 National Student Satisfaction and Priorities Report is to be trusted, I was not alone in my dissatisfaction. According to the Report, nearly half of all traditional students today share my undergraduate discontent.

I can’t speak for anybody else, but I had a long list of grievances. The lecture halls were too big. Professors were too busy. The food at the dining hall turned my stomach to stew. The only school employees who actually did their jobs well were the jerks with the parking tickets. I complained bitterly and constantly to anybody who would listen (I’m sure I was a blast at parties).

I won’t identify my college by name, but it rhymes with Shmutgers. Anyway, I was a traditional student, a recent high school graduate brimming with expectations about what college was supposed to look like. These expectations were formed by a combination of lofty promises from guidance counselors and the racy movies about sorority pledges that they used to show on late-night basic cable back in the ’80s.

The real thing was quite a bit different, and I must admit, I was disappointed.

The 2017 National Student Satisfaction and Priorities Report survey suggests that, aside from the skyrocketing price, things haven’t changed all that much for college freshmen. Struggles with bureaucracy, inconsistent educational quality, and difficulty adjusting to campus life all remain stumbling blocks on the path to collegiate satisfaction.

One thing has changed though. While traditional students are struggling with the realities of campus life, nontraditional students are actually thriving. The Priorities Report finds that sixty-seven percent of adult learners and seventy-four percent of online learners rate their level of satisfaction with their college experience as “satisfied” or “very satisfied.” Only fifty-three percent of traditional students could make this same claim.

Another key finding from The Priorities Report states that the majority of online learners would re-enroll in their current program if given the chance to make a change. At seventy-five percent, this group showed by far the most enthusiasm for its current situation. Full-time, four-year public and private school students (the most likely demographics to qualify as “traditional”) indicated a likelihood of re-enrollment at fifty-nine and fifty-six percent respectively.

So why are nontraditional learners so much happier in school? And what can we learn from their satisfaction that might improve the college experience across the boards, even for chronic complainers like my curmudgeonly eighteen-year-old self?

What’s a Nontraditional Learner?

Maybe you’re the type of person who is only capable of retaining information as conveyed through dirty limerick. Well, that’s not at all what we mean by “nontraditional learner.” Frankly, I don’t even know why I brought that up. Anyway, in the context of college, we refer to the ever-growing population of students who don’t fit the common age and demographic characteristics of a typical college kid as nontraditional students.

Adult learners, especially those who are returning to school after a long lapse in studies, form a significant part of this population. Nontraditional learners are those who might be completing courses simultaneous to raising children, advancing a career, satisfying military service obligations, or managing any number of adult responsibilities.

With the proliferation of online learning opportunities over the last two decades, these populations are among the fastest growing in the student sector. In fact, according to a report by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, only sixteen percent of all college students today—strictly speaking—actually qualify as “traditional students”—those who are eighteen to twenty-two years of age, financially dependent on parents, living on campus, and attending school full time.

That’s quite a remarkable demographic shift, even from my time as a traditional student in the early 2000s.

As for those emergent demographics, the National Center for Education Statistics defines nontraditional students as meeting one of seven characteristics:

Students meeting one or several of these characteristics comprise an important part of the online education market, those whose scheduling and lifestyle needs require the flexibility and accessibility made possible through web-mediated learning. In fact, the new opportunities created by this medium have done nothing short of changing the face of today’s higher ed population. The AASCU reports that forty-seven percent of all students currently enrolled in colleges and universities are twenty-five years of age or older.

In other words, the term “nontraditional” is actually kind of misleading, since it seems to imply a sort of minority status. In fact, the diverse group of learners who are finding access and opportunity today are transforming the demographics we associate with higher education.

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Why So Satisfied?

The findings published in The Priorities Report are drawn from 683,000 students across 970 US colleges and universities. If these findings are accurate, then it’s probably a good thing there as so many nontraditional students out there. On the whole, they seem to be an easier lot to satisfy. Is it because wisdom comes with age?

Maybe, but there’s more to it than that. The survey also identified the top drivers of satisfaction among respondents. These include:

Not to harp too much on my life as a “traditional student,” but I can pretty much sum up my experience with each of these drivers in a single sentence: Neither the school’s hostile faculty, nor its indifferent advisors, nor its arrogant “publish-or-perish” educators provided helpful feedback regarding the subject that most of us were paying way too much money in tuition to be locked out of mediocre prerequisite classes until our third or fourth year in college.

I’m not saying this has been the experience for every traditional student, but The Priorities Report findings suggest it isn’t an altogether uncommon one.

The experience for today’s nontraditional student is quite a bit different, and the reason is because online education makes each of these drivers far more attainable. Because nontraditional students are largely those whose life circumstances make full-time, brick-and-mortal college attendance unappealing or impossible, online college has opened the door for an altogether more convenient, accessible, and accommodating experience.

Though the proliferation of shady for-profit schools does demand caution from the prospective student, there is something to be said for the increasingly competitive environment of online education. In particular, if you’re looking for decent customer service—and considering how much you’re spending for college, you should be—online education takes the subject a lot more seriously than your average college or university.

I learned during my years in college that a well-established, even vaunted campus can afford to be somewhat indifferent to individual needs within a large student body. Competitors in the emergent and rapidly evolving online education sphere can’t afford this type of complacency. Success requires attentiveness. The positive satisfaction reported by nontraditional students suggests that the top providers of online education are getting better all the time at availing this kind of attention.

This is certainly true of the schools included in our 50 Best Online Colleges & Universities 2019.

Different Key Strokes For Different College Folks?

Of course, it’s not just that the complexion of our schools is changing. As we mentioned, students are changing too. Online learners in particular tend to have different priorities and different expectations than traditional students. According to The Priorities Report, the two most important areas of student experience identified by online students are “institutional perceptions” and “enrollment services.”

Simply stated, an online school should at once be reputable and accessible.

Compare this to survey respondents at four-year public schools, who identified “academic advising,” “instructional effectiveness,” and “safety & security” as the most important areas of the student experience. What emerges is a picture of two very different types of student with two distinctly different sets of priorities and expectations.

Online students often bring an array of responsibilities, challenges, and circumstances that are worlds away from the experience of a traditional student. Certainly, as a recent high school graduate and college freshman, I knew nothing of the challenges that come with pursuing a degree while raising a family (nor would I have cared to at the time).

My mindset was 180 degrees removed from this experience. I focused on campus life—with all the attendant vices this implies. I wanted to go somewhere cool, somewhere fun, somewhere intellectually stimulating. Instead, I ended up at a college in central Jersey. But that’s neither here nor there. As I applied for colleges, I—like a lot of traditional students—had a list of priorities that did not at all include accessibility or convenience.

Fast-forward a decade-and-a-half. Today, as a father and a nine-to-fiver, I can see how accessibility and convenience would be pretty dominant factors in my application process.

The things that nontraditional and online students prioritize are largely different. Evidence suggests that the colleges serving these demographics are simply doing a better job of understanding and serving these priorities.

To wit, The Priorities Report also draws a comparison between the importance that respondents placed on certain priorities and their satisfaction that these priorities are being met. Almost uniformly, the gap between level of importance and rate of satisfaction is smaller among online students than with any other group.

At a rate of ninety-three percent, online students said it was important that “registration for online courses is convenient.” Eighty-seven percent said that they were satisfied with this aspect of their experience. Other priorities included institutional responsiveness (ninety-two percent importance, seventy-seven percent satisfaction); convenient billing (ninety-one percent importance, eighty-two percent satisfaction); and adequate online library resources (ninety percent importance, seventy-nine percent satisfaction).

This a pretty high rate of customer satisfaction, especially as it compares to four-year public schools. While eighty-nine percent of four-year public university students said that the value of course content related to one’s major was a top priority, only sixty percent felt satisfied with their school’s performance in this area. On instructional excellence, eighty-eight percent cited its importance but only fifty-nine percent were satisfied. Similar statistical gaps separate importance and satisfaction with the knowledge of academic advisors and faculty, as well as with campus safety.

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The key takeaway here is this: you may not wish to think of education as a business. It’s supposed to be something more meaningful and intrinsically valuable than that. But let’s be honest. If you’re shelling out $30K to $50K a year for this thing, it’s quite an investment. And you are a customer.

Online schools are simply doing a far better job of recognizing and responding to this dynamic. This is not to make the case that online education is better than traditional education (nor to make a case that it isn’t). But specifically on the subject of satisfaction, online schools are miles ahead of traditional schools.

After decades of precipitous rising, college enrollment has fallen in the US every year since 2010. This is an ominous trend for a nation struggling to create skilled workers and preempt critical labor shortages. The gaps that you see between the perceived importance of and satisfaction over priorities among traditional students can tell you a lot about these declining enrollment numbers. Students simply aren’t getting what they hoped to out of the college experience.

I know I didn’t.

This poses a pretty urgent challenge to schools serving traditional student populations. For four-year private and public schools, it isn’t a question of what online colleges are prioritizing. Instead, it is the fact that these institutions are more agile at identifying and serving the priorities of their key demographics. The Priorities Report suggests that too many traditional four-year schools simply lack either a clear sense of their students’ top priorities, or else they lack the wherewithal to serve these interests.

Flagging enrollment—and lost market share to the online sector—suggests this is a pretty wrongheaded strategy. As long as traditional colleges are selling an extremely expensive product, they have much to learn about customer service.

For schools that are particularly adept at meeting customer expectations, check out the 50 Best Online Colleges & Universities 2019.

The definitive ranking of the best online colleges 2018–2019. Find the top, accredited, nonprofit, US universities offering online degrees you can trust.

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