Understanding our particular non-traditional students is key to helping non-traditional students graduate.

This article presents five board, administrative, and practical tips that can empower the nontraditional student (NTS) at Bible school to complete their studies. 

Helping non-traditional students graduate is crucial because, in the 20th century, one-third of students enrolled in the US were nontraditional students (NTS).  These students hold multiple roles in addition to student, such as parent or employee, and they have been out of high school for at least one year (Dill & Henley, 1998, p.25).

Another study (Kazis et al., 2007) considers a non-traditional student (NTS) as having one or more of the following traits: (1) delayed enrollment in postsecondary education beyond the first year after high school graduation, (2) part-time attendance, (3) financial independence from parents, (4) full-time work, (5) Having dependents (other than a spouse), (6) Being a single parent and (7) No high school diploma (pp. 7–8).

By the 21st century, the “new demographics of colleges and universities identify part-time adult learners as the new majority, with non-traditional working adults over 26 comprising over 50% of the American post-secondary student population” (Ausburn, 2004, pp. 327–336).

As such, there are certain stressors which seem to be magnified for non traditional students. Kirk and Dorfman (1983) says that the non traditional student has significantly more time constraints, role conflict, financial constraints, may face depression and ”are at a higher rate of dropping out” (Gilardi & Guglielmetti, 2011).

In terms of the students called to Bible school and related type training, these dynamics are magnified by their involvement in ministerial services including pastoral work and care, community outreach, church involvement and other Christian ministries.  It is not easy for non-traditional students to graduate on time (or even at all).

It is no secret that the NTS often have more responsibility and obligation at home (Dill & Henley, 1983, p. 29), and may experience more anxiety over their academic ability (Novak & Thacker, 1991). According to Caschera (2015), the challenges experienced by the ”adult learners can be classified as those related to the balancing act,” “accessibility, cost, as well as physical exhaustion” (Kasworm, 2003).

Nontraditional students also have multiple issues that can impact their academic performance. Kyung-Nyun and Baker (2015) add that while trends have been to expand educational opportunities for adult learners, these cohorts are likely to be limited in the number of hours available towards educational pursuits due to pre-established life schedules, with less than 60% earning their degree within six years (p.511).

Given the complex roles and responsibilities assumed by the average adult learner, studying requires not only considerable sacrifices, but also persistence. The stress and physical exhaustion associated with studying can also sway the adult learners away from pursuing their educational pursuits (Kasworm, 2003).

Since the NTS faces a number of obstacles related to balancing family, work, study and ministry commitments, the challenge facing academic institutions is how to provide support for its NTS population so that they can perform at the academic expectation of the institution and graduate within the allotted time while managing a host of other responsibilities. A pro-active program of helping non-traditional students graduate is called for.

Crafting specifically designed student support services for the adult learner can provide an important safety net through which academic success can be obtained. Here are five tips for achieving that goal:


Tip # 1: Do the research!

Helping non-traditional students graduate means doing the research on their particular NTS population. With that information, the Academic Office can ensure that student information is used to better align the support services to the specific demographics of a given cohort or group.

For instance, how does an increase in the enrollment in a given year of the female NTS who may be married, care for children and spouses, and involved in Christian ministry influence the range of extra curricula Bible school activities which they are expected to participate in? Do the support services provided adequately cover the specific needs of this demographics? Some more questions to, therefore, consider include the following:

  1. Should child care services be available to these mothers on campus for a specific period of time?
  2. Are the activities planned in the semester reflective of the time constraints which this group face?
  3. Can the student support augment services in any way?


Tip # 2: Think outside the box

Technology has opened the door for academic, spiritual, and character formation activities in virtual time and space. With this technology, comes opportunities. Academic Officers can explore how the integration of technology into the academic requirements of courses, teaching, and learning can reduce the need for NTS to always be in a physical space such as a classroom, exam room, or compulsory chapel session. Questions to consider include:

  1. Can a minister in training be allowed to take an exam online while others take it in the class session? (Charater formation)
  2. Should compulsory chapel sessions be attended online or streamed live? (Spiritual Formation at a distance)


Tip # 3: Models need not constrain innovation

Academic deans, faculty members, and academic administrators are constantly bombarded by state, regional, and international accreditation standards. Moreover, the rapid publication of literature on best practices in teaching, learning, and character development in the field of Theological education and annual departmental reports of graduation figures, student performance, and drop out rates are often scrutinized by Institutional Boards.

Nevertheless, academic professionals need not be afraid of “thinking outside the box” when planning for its NTS learning and progress throughout the program.

The question to ask under these constraints is: how can we better adapt program requirements to the NTS while at the same time exceeding the various accreditation standards, institutional expectations and current trends in higher education?  Here are some solutions:

  1. Think about what already exists and what else can be done to assist the NTS.
  2. Resist the urge to commingle the needs of the traditional and nontraditional student when making student support decisions.
  3. Think about making incremental, continuous adjustments based on NTS student feedback.


Tip # 4: Communication! Commuication! Communication!

In an age of vast avenues for interpersonal communication, academic personnel are sometimes criticized for communicating less with one of its main constituents—the students.

A Chinese proverb says that the shortest pencil is better than the longest memory and this is of much consequence in the administration of academic matters and services to our students.

The proverb is applicable here since all communication avenues must be used to give students relevant information related to their academic and student lives. Academic administrators cannot depend on the notion that the NTS have already been informed about policies, expectations, and support services available to them; instead, we must seek to always “keep them in the know.”


Tip # 5: Be a Footsoldier

Merriam-Webster says that a footsoldier is a person like an infantryman, especially in doing active and usually unglamorous work in support of an organisation.

Translated in the context of this article, academic officials (presidents, provosts, deans and academic professionals) can become so busy with the academic affairs of the Institution that simple interaction on a personal and intimate level with students is lost.

When was the last time, the academic dean walked along the corridors and interacted with students? Or does he rush to pass them on his way to important events necessary for the building of the Institution (senate meeting, fundraising event, etc)?

When last did she sit among students and just listen to their words and their hearts?

Instead, an administrator is now expected to do these “grassroots” tasks. But, traversing the hall where our students trod brings new knowledge of what the NTS faces at school and life.

And it is this knowledge that will help Christian colleges fulfill their mission statement among all students, even the nontraditional.



Ausburn, L. (2004). Course design elements most valued by adult learners in blended online education environment: an American perspective. Educational Media International, 41 (4), 327-336.


Dill, P. L., & Henley, T. B. (1998). Stressors of college: A comparison of traditional and. Journal of Psychology132(1), 25.


Gilardi, S., & Guglielmetti, C. (2011). University Life of Non-Traditional Students: Engagement Styles and Impact on Attrition. Journal of Higher Education, 82(1), 33-53.


Kasworm, C. E. (2010). Adult Learners in a Research University: Negotiating Undergraduate Student Identity. Adult Education Quarterly60(2), 143-160.


Kasworm, C. E. (2003). Setting the stage: Adults in higher education. New Directions for Student Services, 102, 3–10.


Kazis, R., et al. (2007). Adult learners in higher education: barriers to success and strategies to improve results. Employment and training administration occasional paper 2007-03. Jobs for the Future. Retrieved from http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED497801.


Kirk, C & Dorfman, L. (1983). Satisfaction and role strain among middle ages and older re-entry students. Educational Gerontology, 9(1), 15-29.


Kyung-Nyun, K. & Baker, R. (2015). The Assumed Benefits and Hidden Costs of Adult Learners’ College Enrollment. Research in Higher Education. 56, 510–533. doi 10.1007/s11162-014-9351-x.


Munro, L. (2011). ‘Go boldly, dream large!’: The challenges confronting non-traditional students at university. Australian Journal of Education (ACER Press, 55(2), 115-131.


Novak, M., & Thacker, C. (1991). Satisfaction and strain among middle ages women who return to school: Replication and extension of findings in a Canadian context. Education Gerontology 17(4), 323-342


  • Kerry-Anne Roberts-Kasmally

    Mrs. Kerry-Anne Roberts-Kasmally lives in Arima and is Vice President of Academic Affairs at the West Indies School of Theology (Maracas Campus). She holds a B.Sc. in Economics (Hons) from UWI (St. Augustine Campus), a Diploma in Bible and Theology from the West Indies School of Theology, and a M.Sc. in Global Studies (Hons) from the UWI Graduate Institute of International Relations and a Post Graduate Diploma in Instructional Design (UWI, Open Campus). She has been involved in education for the past 15 years. Her interest lies in the field of Educational Leadership in Higher Education, Community Development, Social Change and Leadership.

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