Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Doing something for non-traditional students

A few years ago I did a stint as an instructor at a large state school (fun work, terrible pay). Most semesters I taught at least one night course which meant lots of non-traditional students. They always impressed the hell out of me. Most were working full time jobs, many had kids to take care of, but somehow they always were the ones who got all their homework in, showed up for study sessions and managed to maintain the best attitudes.

I always felt that the university was not serving these students well, that we should have been finding ways to work around their schedules to make their lives easier and the path to graduation quicker. With that in mind, I liked a lot of what I heard in this NPR report on Western Governors University, a nonprofit online school designed to help adult students finish college.

Shackleford can also keep her costs down by finishing her coursework early. The average time to get a degree at Western Governors is much shorter than at a typical school, where students have to put in a set amount of "seat time."

But the truly unusual thing about this computer-driven system is that it provides a lot of one-on-one attention. Throughout her time at Western Governors, Shackleford will have her own personal student mentor — a combination guidance counselor, career coach and best buddy.

Shackleford has never met her mentor in the flesh, even though she lives about 90 minutes away, just north of Indianapolis. Her name is Stormi Brake, and she also works out of her home office, in a house filled with kids and pets.

When I show up for a visit, Brake is wearing a headset and talking on the phone with one of her 90 students. She is organized and energetic, jumping from student to student to head off any problems. She tracks their progress on a computer dashboard the school uses. She shows me that students who are completing required tasks on schedule show up in green, while those who are behind show up in red, a sign that the mentor needs to get in touch.

Brake has a strong background in science and teaching, but her job is to make sure her students get their degree. Students with questions about course content can turn to another kind of mentor — a course mentor — who's considered an expert on the subject.


  1. The lack of support for non-traditional students is the niche the for-profits were created to fill. nearly 100% of pell grant eligible students at for-profit schools get them. Community colleges have a rate of 58%. And all students have a dedicated adviser to help them navigate the university (something you never find at state schools).

    WGU's speed comes from their competency-based model. If you can demonstrate competency, the class is over and you pass, on to the next. No seat time. For non-traditional students with work experience, that can make a HUGE difference.

  2. My boyfriend, who has taught at community colleges, had the same impressions of non-traditional students. The traditional education system has been as much about social sorting as it has about empowering learners.

    It would be great to see more progress in this area, having the rest of your life determined by what you were thinking or capable of when you were 17 doesn't make sense for anything else that is important to us.