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Non-Traditional Students | 4 minute read

Serving Non-Traditional Learners Requires a Reframed Student Lifecycle

Recruitment; Enrollment; Retention; Graduation; Alumni Donation – that’s the traditional student lifecycle. And once upon a time, in the era of the three-stage life, that made a ton of sense. 

Students would enroll in a postsecondary program, graduate with a degree, get a good-paying job on a career track in a stable industry, grow over time and eventually earn enough money to donate to their alma mater. Every now and then, to show students their college or university still cares, the institution would put on a Homecoming event to bring their alumni back on campus, or host a lecture in their town to keep them engaged. 

In 2020, we’re already way past the five-stage student lifecycle. And as time moves forward, this model will become less and less relevant for colleges and universities. 

The modern student lifecycle is complex and fits their multi-stage life. It doesn’t assume that their postsecondary engagement will be a single program in their youth, but recognizes that success in the emerging labor market requires regular and substantive ongoing education engagements to support the constant upskilling and reskilling of today’s professional. 

In the era of the 100 Year life, we need to fundamentally rethink how we’re engaging with learners. According to Jeff Russell, Dean of Continuing Studies and Vice Provost for Lifelong Learning at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, this will significantly impact how we want modern learners to engage with postsecondary institutions.  

“To accommodate longer lives, we’ll need to develop academic programs that stretch from childhood into old age,” Russell wrote in an article on The EvoLLLution. “This will require creativity in how we deliver courses, with an emphasis on flexibility and personalization. It will also require creativity in how we provide credentials, from degrees to certificates to digital badges.”  

Let’s take a closer look at what it would take to execute on this vision. 

Serving Learners Over a Lifetime 

Shifting from a single engagement model to a lifelong engagement model requires college and university leaders to rethink their approach to serving students, both inside and outside the classroom. 

Experiences must be contextual and designed specifically for the audiences coming through the door. Importantly, it’s essential for institutional leaders to take a close look at how processes and policies could actually be creating impediments to engagement, because the only factor that unites all learners—regardless of age, experience, and other commitments—is their “persnicketiness” as customers. 

At the University of Maryland University College—now University of Maryland Global Campus—they did a study some years back to understand why their learners were dropping out. After all, they’re an online university designed from the ground up to serve non-traditional, adult learners. Many of the obstacles these audiences face at more traditional institutions were addressed in UMUC’s very structure. 

Speaking to The EvoLLLution, Marie Cini (UMUC’s Provost at the time) shared that it wasn’t the challenge of the academic programs or the struggle of balancing life and educational priorities that caused students to leave. It was the customer experience the university was offering. 

 We lose them when they’ve had approximately three problems with administrative bureaucracy,” Cini said. If they call about financial aid and they don’t get an answer they understand and then they stop in and they try to enroll with a face-to-face advisor and then they’re not given accurate information and then one other thing occurs, they leave us. 

Shifting to serving learners over a lifetime requires consistent, seamless and contextual customer service that’s designed to retain students. And not retain them over a few years through a specific program with high barriers to exit and re-entry. But to retain them over a lifetime, when they have a wide variety of learning options available to them at every stage. 

Improving Programmatic and Credential Relevance 

Delivering educational programming across the new student lifecycle also requires colleges and universities to look at the structure and design of their offerings. 

As of now, most of the knowledge and learning opportunities offered by postsecondary institutions is gated into degree programs. These are expensive, time-consuming and—frankly—not always delivering the outcomes or credentials desired by learners. 

Learning opportunities should be modular, interactive and learner-driven,” wrote Dave King, the now-retired Associate Provost for University Outreach and Engagement at Oregon State University, in an article on The EvoLLLution discussing the Spectrum of Learner Access. 

It’s essential for college and university leaders across the institution (not just within continuing, professional and workforce education divisions) to find ways to unbundle and ungate high-demand elements of otherwise closed degree programming to create more democratized access to these opportunities. 

 This approach also allows for institutions to offer more granular microcredentials (like certificates and industry certifications) and digital credentials (like badges) to help learners verify and contextualize their ongoing learning. 


The modern learner is non-traditional, and their expectations for a postsecondary experience have evolved from the era of cardigans and ivy-covered walls. Meeting the needs of the modern learner requires college and universities to think of them as customers, and serve them accordingly.