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Should Nontraditional Students Be Measured by the Same Persistence Criteria (Clock)?

Considering the shift from being industrial to being a knowledge-based economy, the value of an education cuts both ways. Job seekers, increase their odds and mobility and employers increase their likelihood of finding qualified candidates when we are able to educate more people.

I particularly don't agree with the measure of success for nontraditional students being how quickly they finish. The race is not always to the swift and nontraditional students have many hurdles that traditional students don't have to navigate.

For many nontraditional students, persistence through challenges and obstacles to complete a degree at all is success. Getting accepted and completing graduate school is another. Keeping their eyes on the prize and getting it done is the objective. Arbitrary measures of success that don't directly correlate with future professional or economic outcomes seem superfluous.

I am admittedly biased on this issue. I was a single parent in college. It took me forever because of constant breaks to work or adapt to shifts in child care funding and availability. I took my first college class in 1988 and didn't complete my Bachelor of Science in Business Administration until 2003. Nevertheless, I did persist.

I read The number of single parents in college has been growing, but grad rates remain low in The Hechinger Report. It discussed findings about the increase in numbers of single parents in college and their low rates for graduation within six years.

I became familiar with and measures of persistence and definitions of nontraditional student status while completing my doctorate in educational leadership. Then and now, I find the success measures are skewed unfavorably away from what success actually looks like for a nontraditional graduate.

Recent data indicates single parents in college are nearly 20% of the overall population. Single students are a subset of the population still labeled "nontraditional" when more than 70% of the student population met one or more of the "nontraditional" criteria as early as 2002 (Ross-Gordon, 2011), with that criteria being:

  • entry to college delayed by at least one year following high school,

  • having dependents,

  • being a single parent,

  • being employed full time,

  • being financially independent,

  • attending part time, and

  • not having a high school diploma.

During my academic journey, I met many other brave souls attempting the same feat. The obstacles, challenges, and barriers for these students were many. Despite these factors, many of them persisted. Persistence for nontraditional students doesn't always follow the beaten path.

I encountered people who had been inadequately prepared for college and required substantial remediation to get "on track". With English and math being sequential, applying a six year clock to someone who needs four or five math or English courses to become eligible to take prerequisites to college level severely handicaps them. In some cases, an individual requires both.

When you become a parent, the children take priority. Providing for them and making sure they are well cared for in your absence supercede academic aspirations. In the end, I look at the adults my children became and appreciate the significance as well as the challenge of my role as a single parent.

One thing about the current academic environment is how close we are to having education return to be a privilege reserved for an elite few.

Personally, education changed/saved my life. I am grateful to have had the opportunity despite how long it took. Much of who I am and what I have accomplished can be attributed to education. I am hopeful that this avenue for social mobility continues to be open for others.

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