ACE Paper Recommends Ways to Better Serve Nontraditional Students

By Joelle Fredman, Communications Staff

If higher education leaders and lawmakers adjusted policies and programs to better cater to the needs of nontraditional students, more than 1 million Americans would overcome poverty, and tax revenues would skyrocket, according to a new paper by the American Council on Education (ACE).

The paper — The Post-Traditional Learners Manifesto Revisited: Aligning Postsecondary Education with Real Life for Adult Student Success — builds on findings from a previous ACE report and recommends several ways that institutions and policymakers can help this demographic of students earn degrees, such as working to improve affordability, using data to inform future decisions about this group of students, and altering academic programs to better suit their needs.

Over time, the term “nontraditional students” has become a misnomer. No longer does the 18-year-old dependent student accurately represent the majority of college students. Of the 23 million undergraduates in America, 13 million are nontraditional students, those who are over the age of 25, working full-time, financially independent, or connected to the military. The ACE paper, therefore, refers to these students as “post-traditional learners.”

Co-authors Jonathan Gagliardi and Louis Soares, both of ACE’s Center for Policy Research and Strategy, argued that adjusting the higher education system to fit the needs of this large group would help society grow, as having some form of postsecondary education is becoming increasingly important to find work.

“The benefits are manifold, and include higher tax revenues, greater civic engagement, and less reliance on public assistance,” the authors wrote in a blog post.

Not only would supporting post-traditional learners empower 1.1 million of Americans to climb out of poverty, but it would also bring in an additional $111.6 billion in post-tax income and $43.2 billion in tax revenue in just one year, according to the authors.

In order to reap these societal benefits, however, Gagliardi said that schools and lawmakers must take action. He argued that the current system does not favor nontraditional students.

“Whether because of age, employment duties, military enlistment, or responsibilities like caregiving, many of these learners face unique obstacles in finishing a degree because many institutions were not designed to work for them,” he wrote in the blog.

The authors suggested three main ways to fix the higher education system, including developing policies around grant programs to continue to keep college affordable, improving both national and state data to allow for a deeper understanding of post-traditional learners, and tailoring academic programs to fit the unique needs of these students.

“Post-traditional learners want the same thing for the same reasons as their traditional counterparts. They just need different pathways to earning a degree that can be molded to fit well with their life roles and experiences, and their learning preferences,” the authors wrote. “Still, the traits and factors that positively and negatively impact post-traditional learner success are not well understood. That will need to change in order to develop and implement effective policy solutions.”

Post-traditional students struggle financially to pursue degrees, particularly because many have already attended some sort of postsecondary education. The authors urge policymakers to support the Pell Grant program and the Federal Work-Study program (FWS), both of which are targeted in Trump administration's fiscal year 2018 budget proposal.

While the Senate’s funding bill proposed increasing the maximum Pell Grant award by $100, it also suggested cutting $2.6 billion from the reserve funds. The House bill contained a $3.3 billion cut from the reserve, and the Trump administration proposed a $3.9 billion cut. The Trump administration also proposed cutting half of the funding for FWS, while the Senate bill suggested an addition, and the House bill would  keep the funding level.

The authors also suggested that policymakers adjust unemployment insurance policies (UI) to better allow them to assist students in long-term programs. Currently, the policies tend to favor those in short-term programs that do not put post-traditional learners on the path toward good jobs, according to the authors.

In order to better gauge these students’ needs, the authors recommended improving the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), as well as pulling data from state longitudinal data systems (SLDS) to allow institutions to analyze these learners’ experiences and outcomes.

In addition to gaining an improved understanding of this group of students, the authors suggested that institutions provide these students with additional services that help them as parents, full-time employees, and soldiers. They argued that post-traditional learners need stackable programs and flexible learning environments that give credit for applied learning and have less of a focus on classroom time and attendance. The authors also maintained that there needs to be improved communication between schools and campuses to protect against credit-loss.

“Post-traditional learners are here to stay, and they will have lasting and transformative effects on our society and economy, and on higher education,” the authors wrote. “College and university leaders must ultimately realize that higher education policy and practice need to evolve so that they are better able to accommodate post-traditional learners’ need to balance life, work, and education.”



Publication Date: 12/11/2017

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