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What Is Tertiary Education for Non-Traditional Students?

July 5, 2022 by Jean-Rémi Larcelet-Prost
What Is Tertiary Education for Non-Traditional Students?

Education is a never-ending journey. While many learners in our society follow a set path — graduating from high school, attending college, then entering their careers — the truth is that anyone at any age can advance their educational level to achieve personal and career growth.

Whether students are fresh out of high school or deep into their careers, it’s the responsibility of leaders of tertiary education institutions to help them learn. So what is tertiary education and how are schools accommodating non-traditional students in their programs? Here’s what you need to know.

What is tertiary education?

Tertiary education refers to any level of schooling pursued after high school. It’s designed to prepare students for specific careers. Two-year community colleges, four-year universities, and vocational schools all fit into this tertiary education definition.

Also known as postsecondary education, tertiary education leads to degrees and certifications that students can use in the real world. However, postsecondary education doesn’t always occur in-person. Schools are increasingly offering tertiary learning opportunities in the form of remote courses, hybrid classes, and internships.

Over the past decade, the students pursuing tertiary education have become just as diverse as the classes they take.

What are non-traditional students?

Non-traditional students are learners who don’t fit the mold of a traditional postsecondary student. Rather than enrolling in full-time educational programs the same calendar year they graduate from high school, non-traditional students may:

  • Delay enrollment
  • Attend part-time for at least part of the academic year
  • Work full-time while enrolled
  • Be considered financially independent for the purpose of determining eligibility for financial aid
  • Have dependents other than a spouse
  • Be a single parent
  • Not have a high school diploma (completed high school with a Certificate of Completion or a General Educational Development test)

Students are considered minimally non-traditional if they fit one of these characteristics, moderately non-traditional if they fit two or three, and highly non-traditional if they fit four or more.

Nowadays, the majority (74%) of students enrolled in tertiary education in the U.S. are at least minimally non-traditional. In many colleges, these students outnumber the amount of 18-year-old, parent-supported freshmen on campus.

As non-traditional becomes the new traditional, schools are coming up with innovative ways to support their increasingly diverse student bodies.

How Schools Offer Tertiary Education to Non-Traditional Students

Non-traditional students worldwide have different needs than the traditional student. Instead of carrying out their tertiary education in a dormitory, completely immersed in the college experience, non-traditional students have one or even two feet in the ‘real’ world. Non-traditional students often lead very busy lives, juggling responsibilities like full-time employment, multiple jobs, children, and other dependents.

Here are three strategies that postsecondary schools use to make tertiary education more effective — and more possible — for nontraditional students.

1. Online Courses for Alleviating Time Restraints

Commuting to school — much less moving to another state — is often impossible for non-traditional students. Whether they’re tied to a workplace, a dependent, or a home of their own, they can’t pack up and leave as easily as their younger peers. In many schools, the most prevalent solution for non-traditional learners is online education.

By offering courses via edtech platforms like Canvas and Blackboard Learn, tertiary education providers allow students to watch lectures, take quizzes, and more without leaving their homes. Live meetings and group activities are increasingly held over Zoom.

However, while online courses are popular and convenient for non-traditional students, it’s important to recognize that online learning alone — without the right supportive tools — tends to lead to worse results than in-person learning.

2. Accommodations for In-Person Learners

While in-person courses can be difficult for non-traditional learners to attend, those that are able to can greatly benefit from learning in physical classrooms, where tertiary education can be more engaging. To make this option accessible for more non-traditional students, many colleges provide reasonable accommodations. For example, students may be able to:

  • Bring their children to class
  • Step outside for calls during lectures
  • Attend virtual meetings in place of in-person ones when required outside of scheduled class times

While these strategies may not reduce the time needed to invest in college courses, they can alleviate stress for non-traditional students and allow them to take part in a more traditional college experience.

3. Text to Speech for Enhanced Studying

When class is over, tertiary learners still need to spend time studying to retain information from their courses and pass their quizzes and final exams. Regardless of whether they’re taking in-person or online courses, studying can be taxing on their schedules.

Non-traditional learners are, therefore, one of the biggest student populations that can benefit from the ability to listen to course content. While listening to course content is helpful for all students as a study aid for retention and comprehension, it can be imperative for non-traditional students, who need a way to study while carrying out their myriad responsibilities.

With text-to-speech technology, non-traditional students can listen to slideshows, notes, textbooks, and other course content on the go while exercising, cooking, driving, or traveling on public transportation. In today’s bustling society, auditory learning options can be transformative for students’ tertiary education experience, helping them master their coursework, gain long-term knowledge, and apply their learnings to their careers.

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