From the Desk of Victoria Juarez

“Know your target market” is a familiar bit of first-order advice for enterprises large and small. Are colleges and universities heeding this axiom when it comes to students?

Pop culture stereotypes aside, not all college students are recent high school graduates who live in dorms and attend class full time. In fact, research indicates the ranks of nontraditional students have been growing for decades.

What defines a nontraditional student? According to RTI International, a think tank based in North Carolina, such students have one or more of the following characteristics: they are financially independent from their parents, parents themselves, or caregivers; they lack a traditional high school diploma or have delayed postsecondary enrollment; or they are employed full time or attending school part time.

Remarkably, more than 70 percent of undergraduates fall into one of these categories, and about a third fit two or three.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, of the 17 million Americans enrolled as undergraduates during the most recent academic year, 1 in 5 is at least 30 years old; about half are financially independent from their parents; 1 in 4 is caring for a child; 47 percent go to school part time at some point; a quarter take a year off before starting school; 2 out of 5 attend a two-year community college; and 44 percent have parents who never completed a bachelor’s degree.

At the Scholarship Foundation, we encounter many nontraditional students, and their stories are often inspiring. George Crowder, who served as a student speaker at our north county reception in Orcutt this year, is one example.

In the fall, George will begin his second year at Allan Hancock College, where his postsecondary educational experience began almost 40 years ago. In the intervening years, he served in the U.S. Army and came to understand how childhood trauma had shaped his life. Armed with this insight, he now plans to earn an advanced degree in psychology so that he can counsel veterans and others wrestling with mental health issues.

We should celebrate George and other nontraditional students, who bring dynamism and unique perspectives to college classrooms.

Just as importantly, colleges and universities should support such students with things like scheduling flexibility, on-campus childcare, and academic assistance.

I’m happy to report that at least one local institution of higher learning is leading the way in this regard. UC Santa Barbara’s Non-Traditional Student Resource Center offers all manner of support for both graduate and undergraduate students.

Programs of this sort are not prevalent enough nationwide, however. Colleges and universities should do all they can to alleviate the social isolation common to nontraditional students and otherwise help them achieve academic success.

Versions of this commentary have appeared in the Santa Maria Times and on Noozhawk.