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Crazy Life of Non-Traditional Student

How Might We Understand Better the Needs of Non-Traditional Students, who account for 75% of all college students in US?

Photo of Sasha Stewart
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What image comes to mind when you think about college? Do you imagine a young, right out of high school, early twenty-year old student, who lives on campus and goes to school full time? You are in for a treat. According to Wall Street Journal article “Number of the Week:” ”Non-Traditional” Students are Majority on College Campuses”.

Traditional students comprise only 25% of all students in college


I propose we redefine the Cost of College Challenge, to following:

How Might We Better Understand the Needs of Non-Traditional Students?

(75% of all college students in US)

Let me start with a personal story. I have 13 years of college experience (two bachelor degrees and a master). When I think about my own college experience I get chills, partly because I have three degrees and my journey was not easy. Today I would like to focus on my advanced degree as a learning experience to speak for and understand better the needs and the challenges of nontraditional students.

Lets start with summer of 2010, when I decided to apply for a Master of Business Administration Program.

Lets start with Admission. Since I applied for Traditional MBA program, the requirements for admission extended two full pages of checklist points. This included resume, prior transcripts, personal letters of recommendations, essays, statement of purpose and many other items, like my tax returns for in state residency. It took me good six months to college/prepare and submit all required documentation. Eventually I got admitted and later that year i started taking few classes.

Next, College Tuition Costs. The tuition costs at CSU was $900 per credit hour, each class was 2 credits and my employer only covered $5,200 per year of tuition costs. The amount covered 3.5 MBA classes per academic year, and I needed to take 20 classes to complete the program. I calculated, it would take me 6.5 years to complete the 20 months MBA degree, since I could not afford to pay it out of pocket right away.

Next, I had employment related challenges. My job required a lot of domestic and international travelling and with many MBA classes been project based, it was truly challenging to focus on work or school. Travelling schedule got more intense as program progressed. I remember having to connect at Dublin airport, at 2am for one of our project conference calls. I was lucky to get an incredible team who supported me along the way and unable me to complete all project and class assignments on schedule.

Additionally, I had family related obstacles to overcome. My third baby- Alexander was born 2 weeks before finals in my last MBA semester. I remember sitting in my recliner, with him in my lap, sleeping. I must have spent 4-6 hours a day in that recliner, this is the only way he would sleep and I could study. I am very grateful to my spouse and kids for supporting me during this challenging times, I could not have succeeded without their help and support.

Last category of challenges are connection related issues. Somehow, I felt I was the only person, who went to school in their Thirties, the only one with demanding professional career and three young kids. I felt alienated and apologetic. I frequently felt very lonely too, since I had to take Distance MBA (online) classes. The challenge was- I met very few of my classmates face to face, and I missed to have student-friends while in college. I did not feel connected to college or to other students, and did not feel like part of the group. That said, I enjoyed most of my classes, especially those that have practical applications in my professional space and when i could work on the projects with other students.

To my great surprise, during graduation ceremony in May of 2015, I learned, nontraditional students made up nearly 90% of all students in Distant MBA program, which I was attending! In fact, I met a lady with a two week old baby, carrying a baby in a sling, wearing the sling over the graduation gown!!!! I was shocked, I realized, mature adults and individuals with family and kids made the vast majority of students. For a moment, I felt cheated, since I was not able to connect with others during the program. I realized, as students, we had needs that were not met by college, as a service provider.

In conclusion, I had a few challenges to overcome, including lengthy and complicated admission process, high tuition costs, young kids, traveling for work, not be able to connect and form relationships with others. Overall my experience was a fun one and I learned a lot about my college, myself and my spouse. These six years long road was an amazing journey and I am happy to be done.

Today, I am very excited to connect with all of you, whether you are a student, educator or just a passionate person, who are seeking to redesign college experience and take a closer look at college costs. Lets start by building empathy for real students and understand better their needs in order to create new solutions for old challenges…

Join me, please share with us, what was your college experience like?

Are you a traditional student? Nontraditional? What type of needs did you uncover?

What is a provocation or insight that might inspire others during this challenge?

Non- Traditional Students Need: - More hands experience - Mentors and positive examples - Greater Need for a community, feeling connected and belong to a group - Easier/shorter admission process - Shorter lectures and Easier access to resources - Access/training on web based collaboration tools - More relevant skills and connected to current career goals - Access to career opportunities


Join the conversation:

Photo of Kate Rushton

Hi Sasha!

I am the community guide for OpenIDEO's current challenge - How might we better prepare all learners for the needs of tomorrow by reimagining higher education?

Can I share this post with the community members in that challenge?

I think your experience could generate a lot of discussion and new ideas on how to change things.

Photo of Izabela Correa

Hi Sasha! Thank you for sharing your experience with us. Something that I found really interesting, it was the fact that you believed that the nontraditional students were the minority. There is a college student stereotype and the college experience design tends to be focused on them. However, as the data shows, this is not the reality. Why universities still focus on these students?

Photo of Sasha Stewart

Hi Izabela, you brought up a very valid and important question. I do not have an answer to it, but together we could help to shift focus in academia on the needs and values of non traditional students, who are becoming a new norm for academia. I think the change is happening but it is a slow and gradual process.

Now, how might we help colleges to become more aware of the changing demographics and the overall needs in the student population? How might we create learning experiences that empower non traditional students, connect them and support them in their journey?

Photo of Anne-Laure Fayard

Sasha, thank you so much for sharing your journey: great insights and important questions.
I think one main insight for me is: "I feel the skills I learned while attending college were by far more important than the skills I learned in the college".
Looking at you learnt, I learnt these skills mostly while being a working mother rather than a student working mother (I did finish my Ph.D. before having any child).
I assume that at least having the diploma might help you "symbolically' in your career, but I might be wrong.
Your question of "was it worth it?" resonates with an interview I did with a student today who explained me that after studying English and Art (undergrad), and looking at the job she could get, she wondered "was it worth it?" This is a question that came up several times during our OpenIDEO meet up today... and was balanced with studies showing that employers think that students don't have the right skills when they come out of college!
Thanks again for sharing.

Photo of Sasha Stewart

Hi Anne-Laure, I really appreciate your comment and the personal story you added. I am 100% agree with you, about questionable value of college degree. Yes, employers are asking for it, BUT employers are also asking for relevant skills, and it seems education professionals are not always in the position to deliver on that requirement. Lets look at college professors? How many out of 100% of college professors are connected to an actual employer or an HR person in their field?

How may a college professor, who spent 10-15 years in academia, and not working in the field have the right knowledge or the skills needed to teach students the most relevant and marketable skills?

85% of students on UNC Intake survey answered "Get a better job" as a primary reason to enter college. If colleges know that to start with, how might we shift focus from theoretical knowledge to more of a skill based, preferable on the job training? How might we empower our educators to become more relevant?

Photo of Anne-Laure Fayard


great questions and I asked myself these questions regularly, as an academic.

I happen to be doing consulting and regularly interacting with professionals through research projects and also because of personal connections. Hence, I keep myself aware of the context of the market out there.

I also try to have a couple of guest speakers in my class to provide different perspectives and also connections with the professional field.

This being said, I don't see my role as providing only marketable skills as I think some of these can be learnt without going to college. I'm trying to teach skills that I personally believe key in all fields (and beyond employment) such as critical thinking, ability to reflect and communication skills, and team work. In the end, I truly believe that these are also marketable skills but this is not how I think of them.

While my courses are very hands-on and project oriented, I'd like to note theoretical knowledge is not necessarily useless. It informs my teaching but I don't lecture and don't quiz students on theories...

Yet, this challenge is also making me reflect on what I've been doing intuitively... and it seems to make sense, which is a good news! :-)

Photo of Sasha Stewart

Hello Anne, thank you so much for giving me more insights and adding your perspective to the conversation. I get better view of the type of work you do and how you personally and professionally contributing to the students learning experience. I agree, theories have place, and we should not only focus on skills only. Thank you for sharing your view point and allowing me to expand my own view...

Photo of Shane Zhao

Sasha, thanks for sharing this very inspiring personal journey with us! I love how you've accomplished so much in your MBA program while tending to the needs of your family. The take-aways you've shared would be great for any student to know. It'd be helpful if you might re-format your learnings into a series of bullet points. This way, it'll be more visible to people who will be reading through this for the first time. Glad to have you onboard!

Photo of Sasha Stewart

Thank you for feedback Shane, I will reformat and repost the research