‘Nontraditional’ Students | Confessions of a Community College Dean

‘Nontraditional’ Students | Confessions of a Community College Dean

In response to the post about naming “noncredit” programs after what they are not, Anne Hofmann of Frederick Community College tweeted, “Can we stop saying ‘nontraditional students’? Language matters, and naming things in the negative only emphasizes what people AREN’T not who they ARE.”

She’s right, of course. The harder part is coming up with a better alternative.

I’ll admit that it grinds my gears whenever I hear people refer to “college kids.” They are not kids. Part of my discomfort with the term “adult students,” usually applied to students over 25, is that it implies by contrast that younger students are not adults. They are, and we need to respect them as such.

Even “working adults,” a term that I admit using regularly for lack of a better one, isn’t quite right. It suggests by contrast that younger students don’t work for pay. In fact, most do, and many do at a level that makes it difficult to complete a degree. And by including the term “adults,” it implies the existence of “college kids” by contrast.

I’ve heard “new majority student” as an alternative. It has the virtue of being factually correct—full-time residential students under 22 years old are a numerical minority of college students—but it only means something if you’re already aware of the context. Say it to someone who doesn’t work in higher education, and they’ll just look at you quizzically. “Michelle is an adult student” would convey a meaning, however problematically, to most people. “Michelle is a new majority student” would strike most people as word salad.

One could always object that students are students; there’s no need to distinguish by age. But that’s not entirely true. The point of a term like “adult student” is to call attention to the different demands on some students’ time and attention. A 30-year-old with two kids is in a different place in life than an 18-year-old in a dorm; the two students may well need different modes of instruction, different schedules and different sorts of campus involvement. The work for those of us who care about universal access to higher education is to build systems that allow both kinds of student, and many more, to succeed. Doing that requires understanding their constraints, which vary as their circumstances do.

I’d love to find a term that’s accurate, understandable and nondisparaging toward either its own group or the group to which it’s in implied contrast. Wise and worldly readers, any nominees?

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