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 freshmen 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 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."

Texas State University students

In San Marcos, Texas State University's Non-Traditional Student Organization provides a campus connection for students who don't fit the mold of a typical college student, said Diane Welsh, the group's vice president.

The group's 75 members include older students, military veterans and people who are well into full-time careers, she said.

"There is such a difference between the older student who is fitting school into their life, rather than the student [for whom college] is their life," said Welsh, a 57-year-old junior majoring in accounting.

Welsh said the organization provides networking and volunteer opportunities, study groups, family-friendly social opportunities and involvement in campuswide events.

"It just helps mentally that you're part of a group," she said.

Emerging programs

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

The Texas State University Round Rock campus's nursing program has also emerged as a popular program, Director Edna Rehbein said. The campus, an extension of Texas State University in 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."