Colleges aiming to attract students beyond traditional undergraduates

Recent high school graduates planning to live on college campuses this fall will be among the minority in their undergraduate classes, according to a report by the American Council on Education. Nontraditional students—transfer, part-time and commuter students, as well as working adults—now represent 85 percent of all undergraduate students in the U.S., according to the report published in January.

Colleges and universities in Central Texas pay attention to these trends and aim to meet the rising demands for more part-time, evening and online coursework, said Michael Acosta, director of admissions at St. Edward's University in Austin.

"Universities will always have a structure for undergraduate freshman who are coming in from high school and want that four-year, on-campus experience," Acosta said. "But there's still a segment of society that because of their life circumstances, they were unable to complete their degree. Because they have jobs, careers and other obligations, they're looking for an institution that's willing to do whatever it needs to do to help them graduate."

Traits of nontraditional students

Though vastly diverse as a group, nontraditional students share basic commonalities, according to ACE. Typically they are wage-earners who pursue knowledge, skills and credentials that will be easily recognized and for which they will be compensated by employers.

Nontraditional, sometimes called post-traditional students, often begin as undergraduates directly after high school, said Mike Midgley, vice president of instruction at Austin Community College. The eight-campus college district had an enrollment of about 43,000 in fall 2012 with an average student age of 25, he said.

"What we tend to see with a lot of students who are coming back is they are committed to the program because they have made a conscious decision that this is what they want and need to do. For them, it's a direct pathway to something better," Midgley said. "It's different for them compared to the direct-from-high school student who may still be figuring out what they want to do. These returning students were those students back when they were 19, but now they have had some life experiences."

Emerging programs

The programs at ACC that are full to capacity include those related to applied technology fields such as automotive, welding and HVAC repair; criminal justice; and nursing, he said. ACC's nursing program grew 72 percent between 2008 and 2012.

The Texas State University Round Rock campus' nursing program has also emerged as a popular program, Director Edna Rehbein said. The campus, an extension of Texas State University–San Marcos, held its first classes in portable buildings in 1996 and offered master's degrees in education and business.

She said the campus added more undergraduate classes over time with a strong need for nurses surfacing around 2008.

"It seemed like the whole U.S. was talking about a shortage of nurses at that time. So we worked with the community colleges and the Legislature to start the nursing program up here," Rehbein said. "That was a direct result of the needs of the area, and the nursing program is continuing to grow."


About 65 percent of the student population at the Round Rock campus is undergraduate, Rehbein said, and students can take only junior- and senior-level courses there. Lower-level classes are taken at ACC or another institution and transferred to build toward a bachelor's degree.

Transfer programs can add to the number of nontraditional students at any school, including at Southwestern University in Georgetown.

A three-year, $450,000 grant from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation has paved the way for more than 50 low-income ACC students to transfer to Southwestern between 2012 and the upcoming fall semester.

Dave Voskuil, Southwestern vice president for enrollment services, said the number of transfer admissions to the private, four-year school are at historic highs.

"We are getting a lot of interest, not only in those students from ACC as part of that grant program, but from students all over the country that are looking to transfer from four-year schools as well as the two-year schools to Southwestern," he said. "When I talk about the students that are transferring, it's interesting the number that would be categorized as nontraditional—the little bit older student that has some college experience that is wanting to come back."

Methods of learning

The New College program at St. Edward's University's exclusively admits adult learners returning to academia and offers evening, online and blended courses to about 600 students.

Acosta said all colleges have had to keep pace with the needs of nontraditional students who crave class structures tailored to income-earning adults.

"I think a lot of schools offer similar programs that were started maybe in the '70s and '80s, and a lot of them were degree-completion–only programs that met on the weekends or in the evening," he said. "They have now morphed into other types of offerings that may meet once or twice a month, online or may be some sort of blended course where you do half the class online and the other half in a seven-week session instead of a 14-week session."

For ACC student Mandilyn Guerrero, attending a traditional four-year university after high school seemed costly, she said, and life circumstances made the traditional path unlikely.

Now she said she expects to graduate in December with an associate degree in criminal justice, which she earned primarily through online courses while working and caring for her 2-year-old son.

"Going to campus didn't work for me. On the days I did, it seemed like I always had an obligation or something I should have been doing but I couldn't because I had to go to class," she said. "I've gotten accustomed to distance learning. It's had to work for me in order to get me where I want to go."

Dr. Helene Caudill, dean of the New College program, said that in some ways, flexible learning models such as online and evening courses are becoming the new normal, even for recent high school graduates who live on campus.

The lines between traditional and nontraditional students are becoming blurred, she said.

"The world is moving more toward almost everybody being nontraditional because even our traditional students have to work, and they sometimes take a little longer to get out," Caudill said. "But I always say to our adult students, 'It's not a race; it's a journey.' "