This past Saturday, the Kennebec Journal ran a story about George Van Deventer, an 80-year-old student at the University of Maine at Augusta. Because UMA is a university that caters to non-traditional aged students, we have many stories of students like Mr. Van Deventer coming back long after they started college to finish their degree.

These are wonderful human interest stories because they demonstrate our students’ desire to complete their degree as well as their courage to come back to complete in a challenging learning environment.

“Non-traditional” is a bit of a misnomer. Ben Casselman pointed out in a 2013 Wall Street Journal article that “traditional” age students (18-22) made up only 29 percent of undergraduate students in higher education. “Traditional” age students are decreasing in proportion to the total student population; this is a trend that has been going on for many years.

That means that many universities look a lot like UMA, with our average student age of 33. There are a number of implications of this aging of our student population that should inform our discussion about the value of a college education.

First, many non-traditional students do not take classes in the same way as traditional aged students. Residence halls, meal plans and weekly lectures are less in demand with the non-traditional student. Instead, they often demand classes that are asynchronous, that have recorded lectures and online submission of work so that they can attend classes when it fits with their schedule and complete the work on their time. In response, many UMA faculty do offer online, recorded and other modalities to address the needs of non-traditional students. This is a significant shift in the model of university education.

Second, many of these students are completing their education for a career focused purpose. Maybe they were recently laid off, or they know that completing a baccalaureate degree will place them in a higher salary band or allow them to apply for a promotion.

But Van Deventer’s interest is different. According to the Kennebec Journal story, he seeks “an intellectual outlet and community.” This goal is independent from the career-focused interest of many of our students. University education should continue to support all of these goals because they are the goals of our students who are attending. While it imperative that universities continue to be relevant for careers, it is also imperative that we continue to offer courses to cater to a range of interests.

Finally, non-traditional students themselves have a huge educational benefit on a university classroom. When a student with a rich life experience joins a classroom, they often raise the bar of discussion with their different perspectives and experiences that relate to the material that is being learned.

Non-traditional students are now the majority of students in college classrooms and it is important for everyone involved in education to sort through the implications of this trend.

Greg Fahy is dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Maine at Augusta, where he has been since 2012. He also teaches philosophy courses where he encourages students to question assumptions that we all share about philosophical and ethical topics.


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