Growing numbers of non-traditional MSU students find few programs to meet their needs

By SUSAN ANDRUS/Montana State News

For an 18 year old who’s fresh out of high school Montana State University is a very supportive environment. However, non-traditional students, those who aren’t the typical recent high school graduates, might find MSU a little more difficult to navigate.

Incoming freshman at MSU have lots of resources made available to them.

The Office of Student Success offers many resources to help students successfully navigate college life, including the First Year Initiative (FYI) program, which is designed to assist students as they “make the transition from high school to college.”

There’s also SmartyCats Tutoring, workshops and the Champ Change program, which allows students to earn points for participating in MSU outside of the classroom. Freshmen can even choose to live on a “Freshman Year Experience” themed floor “designed to help them adjust successfully to college life.”

But programs tailored to older incoming students are more rare.

A non-traditional freshman is defined by MSU admissions as “one who has been out of high school more than three years and has attempted fewer than 12 college-level credits after graduation from high school.

Brenda York, from the office of Disability, Re-entry and Veteran Services at MSU, says that any student over the age of 24 is considered non-traditional. This semester MSU has 1,834 full- or part-time undergraduate students who fall under that definition of non-traditional, a full 16 percent of MSU’s undergraduate population.

While MSU’s total undergraduate population has grown by 15 per cent over the last 10 years,  the number of non-traditional undergraduates has increased by nearly 23 per cent. Full time non-traditional students aged 30 or older is the category that has seen the biggest jump – a whopping 70 percent increase. Older students are occupying more seats in MSU’s classrooms.

It’s easy to speculate that the faltering U.S. economy of the past few years has driven some students back to school or into the college classroom for the first time in hope of getting a better job after being laid off. And this does seem to be the case.

“Economy issues,” York states when asked if there’s a reason why the numbers of older students are increasing. “Because of the economy and loss of employment we have seen an increase in calls to discuss coming back to school.”

The difficulties that non-traditional age students face are often unique. York says that a common problem is a “lack of academic skills, or from being away from school for a long period time, just getting back into the flow of things.” She also says that many have to balance school with family or work.

Madian Fritts, 37, attends MSU part-time with the goal of “getting my degree by the time I turn 40.” He works as a night auditor for a local hotel to support himself and he agrees that balancing school and work can be hard.

“I work Sunday night so I’m tired for Monday’s class.” Fritts admits. “Sometimes it’s hard to get a nap in before school.”

For students like Fritts there are few options for connecting with other non-traditional students and few services that are directly marketed toward them. The Office of Disability, Re-entry and Veteran Services can help students find the support they need and, for incoming freshmen, there is a special section of University Studies 101 that is specifically for non-traditional students.

There are many programs and offices at MSU that focus on helping students succeed, but most are overtly directed at the traditional aged students and this may have the effect of alienating some older students.

When the Office of Student Success says they offer “evening study sessions before your big mid-term exams (with your favorite pizza pie),” a non-traditional student may see this as something that isn’t meant for them. After all, the free pizza tactic is used to entice young students with a high metabolism and evenings without commitments to family or work.

Likewise, the FYI program is designed to “assist you as you make the transition from high school to college,” and it is not clear whether this program will benefit students who are transitioning from high school to college with a significant dose of life experience in between the two.

Despite the substantial increase in non-traditional students over the past 10 years, the Strategic Planning committee also hasn’t addressed non-traditional students in any way in their new long-term plan.

Under the heading of “Access” the committee hopes to increase diversity and improve access to education on campus, specifically looking at Native American, international and out-of-state students. They also hope to improve the number of incoming freshman who have a 3.6 or better high school GPA, but no mention is made of increasing accessibility for students who are older than average.

There used to be an honor society for non-traditional students, Omicron Psi, but York says, “it was an organization that was not very organized at all,” and it has long since disappeared. She also says that for many years there was an organization called Students Over Traditional Age (SOTA), but it “disbanded in the late ‘90s due to lack of involvement and time commitments.” About five years ago some students tried to start it up again, but the idea was once again abandoned for lack of interest. Still, she hopes the organization could be revived.

“Maybe one day,” York says. But for now non-traditional students must do without.

Edited by Trudi Fisher

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