OpenIDEO is an open innovation platform. Join our global community to solve big challenges for social good. Sign up, Login or Learn more

College Built For Non-Traditional Students

When high-quality online universities are combined with in-person coaching, non-traditional students will be able to earn their degree.

Photo of Sarah Saxton-Frump
6 6

Written by

What if we designed a college program around the needs of non-traditional students instead of forcing their complex lives into a system that graduates only 16% of its part-time students.

With 95% of jobs created in the US since the recession requiring a degree - and the expectation that 60% of all jobs in Texas will require the same by 2020 - the need for college graduates is urgent. Americans know their future is brighter with a college degree - so thousands enroll each year but end up dropping out, because college wasn’t built for them, even though they’re the students who benefit from a degree the most.

Increasingly, students without a degree, can’t earn a liveable wage, change careers, get a promotion into management, or provide provide for their families.

Yet the answer isn’t as simple as just “going back to school” - the barriers they first faced have only become more imposing with time.

Historically in higher education, innovation has simply been layered on top of the existing system of credit-hour courses and semesters. Students who work, commute and attend part-time need a better pathway to their degree, but most programs just add services alongside this traditional structure rather than rethinking college for working adults.

Working adults need flexibility and support in a college pathway. We think the solution is to blend competency-based online education with personalized, in-person support to consistently graduate students without insurmountable debt.

Competency-based, regionally-accredited, non-profit online degrees seem best suited for non-traditional students, because they are the most flexible option for folks who have to work full-time to pay their bills. Students can earn workforce-aligned credentials in half the time and at 20% of the cost on a schedule that work for them.

But the key to success is community  and student support— something two-year institutions particularly struggle with. Returning adults have already failed once at college and often believe that they can’t be successful. They need individualized support— someone to cheer them on, help navigate the complexities of school and work, and to help get back on track when they fall behind.

We think a program needs to fill those gaps and focus on three high-impact activities: meeting weekly with an advisor to analyze progress, setting weekly academic deadlines, and studying in the office with peers.

Who is your idea designed for and how does it reimagine higher education to support the needs of tomorrow?

We designed our idea for nontraditional students - folks who are older than 24, commute, or attend part-time - and they now comprise over half of college students in the United States. The numbers add up fast - 45 million Americans adults have some college credit but no degree (Census Bureau).

This reimagines higher education because non-traditional students are the norm for tomorrow’s colleges. We’re proposing a total overhaul of how college is structured, built for their needs.

This idea emerged from:

  • A group brainstorm

What skills, input or guidance from the OpenIDEO community would be most helpful in building out or refining your idea?

Here in Central Texas, we have a good understanding of the college barriers facing working adults and the industry verticals and aligned degrees where a college degree proves meaningful. What about elsewhere?

Why are students struggling to complete college where you live? Do working adults need a degree to find good jobs in your community? Who could run a pilot to trial this model elsewhere?

What early, lightweight experiment might you try out in your own community to find out if the idea will meet your expectations?

Since 2014 we have experimented with combining competency-based online college education with in-person support. On January 23, fifteen students will begin an academic orientation to test whether this strategy of support proves effective for their academic goals and personal contexts.

If 10 (67% conversion) students are ready to start college March 1st, the experiment will prove effective.

Tell us about your work experience:

My passion for college completion has grown over my ten year career in education and leadership. First as a high school history teacher in Brownsville, Texas and then as a social studies teacher, team leader, manager, assistant principal and then principal at KIPP. Now, I hope to leverage the charter school approach - provide better options, prove the possible, and pressure traditional schools - to higher education so that anyone with the will and drive can earn a college degree.

Find this idea inspiring? Add your own!


Join the conversation:

Photo of Andrea

Hi Sarah!
You should check out A Competency-Based Extracurricular Program !
My sister is a life coach, I see the effects of having someone rooting for you/helping you figure out your life instead of quitting. SO many people from my college dropped out, quite a few came back eventually...but when there is money involved it's hard to "waste time" if it isn't something you enjoy or feel could go towards a career. One of my friends dropped out and never went back because he couldn't spend the money on something he hated. If he had someone find the right fit for him, I think he would have changed course!

Photo of Sarah

Thanks for the link! Looks really interesting! And yes - it's so hard to feel like school doesn't have a really clear "point" in your life - we see that is sometimes a struggle for our younger students, but most returning adults have figured out WHY they care that they have a degree ... and it definitely makes a difference in their persistence.

View all comments