Is “traditional” dead?

Is “traditional” dead?

“29%: The share of college undergraduates who are traditional students.”  This is the title of a recent article by Ben Casselman in the Wall Street Journal (  Casselman’s article reflects on data from the Education Department that shows that the most common students in higher education are actually what we call nontraditional.

Some of the salient facts Casselman notes:

-Of those students in four-year programs, more than one in five attend school part-time.

-The average age of students in four-year programs is rising. Of those enrolled in four-year programs, nearly a million were at least 25 and nearly half a million were in their 30’s or older.

For those of in continuing and professional education, this isn’t surprising news.  On the national scene, the average age of postsecondary students has been drifting up for some time.  As a matter of fact, this is similar to a conversation I had today with a department on our campus that is going through an Academic Program Review, which requires the department to do a self-study followed by an external review.  I was being interviewed as part of the internal review and many of their questions related to this notion that “traditional” is dead.  (By the way I borrow that from the oft-repeated notion that “distance” is dead.)

We spent a good deal of time talking about instructional technology and its impact on the campus, and on teaching and learning.  One point I made based on my own experience is that we sometimes see new developments, say online tutoring or online library access, as being targeted for “nontraditional” students but in reality are services that the “traditional” students want as well.  My classic example is when we purchased the use of SmartThinking for online tutoring for students in our off-campus programs at a previous university.  Well, what we soon found is that once the on-campus students found about this, they utilized the bulk of the time we purchased.  This of course lead to discussions about how we could provide this service to the entire campus. Another example is online access to the library catalog and online databases.  Back in the day, investing in these types of things was seen as a significant investment for our off-campus students. (I’ve been blessed to have been at institutions where this investment is willingly made.)  Today, this type of access is expected by not only our on- and off-campus students but also our faculty and staff.  Let’s face it; it’s easier for me to read the Harvard Business Review from my office instead of running across campus to the library. (By the way I’m old enough to remember doing my research through the use of library cards.)

Both of the above are examples of why I believe “traditional” is dead.  The services that our off-campus students need and want are the same as our on-campus students.  Heavens, when is the last time that someone waited in line to enroll? (Although now, of course, we have virtual lines.) When is the last time you went to the bursar’s office to pay your tuition?

You might be thinking: come on, Shaeffer, this is obvious.  Well, I wonder about that for at least two reasons.  First, as Casselman pointed out, a good deal of the discussion about whether college is worth it or not has focused on the perspective of traditional students. I believe many of our national discussions about higher education default back to thinking primarily about the traditional student.

Second, when I look at the regulations from our regional accrediting agencies, they are geared towards serving on-campus traditional students. Reaching out to sites beyond the campus in some situations requires special permission.  Don’t get me wrong, I expect the same student outcomes from our off-campus students, but the special permission needed to serve off-campus sites seems to be primarily input rather than output driven.

In addition, the emergence of the state authorization regulations for distance learning again, in my opinion, primarily impacts the nontraditional student and their access to higher education.  So no, “traditional” isn’t dead, particularly as it relates to some regulatory agencies.

Here is the good news and the challenge for continuing professional educators: we must continue to be the research and development arm of our institutions.  That is, those innovations we initiated for nontraditional students may have become the modus operandi for our campus, and will continue to do so as we move forward. For example, the use of technology to serve students, providing access at a distance, providing services at any time, and so on. One of the questions I was asked recently in this Academic Program Review is how I think instructional technology will impact our institutions in the future. I responded by saying I don’t think that is the question.  I think the question should be is how our institution will exploit the new technologies to best meet our mission as a public institution.

One of the things that I appreciate about my continuing professional education colleagues is that they’ve taught me that to be successful in our business, we must be proactive in seeing and utilizing opportunities instead of merely reacting to daily challenges.

P.S. In response to one of the questions in this Academic Program Review, I indicated that I thought we would see more and more nontraditional students migrate from the for-profit schools to nonprofit schools because of the recent focus on student loans, gainful employment, etc. But in full disclosure, Casselman reported:

-“In 2001, less than 4% of full-time, four-year students attended for-profit schools. A decade later, that figure was nearly 11%, and has almost certainly continued to rise.”


Apparently I got that wrong…but I don’t know if I agree with the long-term prognosis. Something to follow.



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