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Recruiting The Non-Traditional Student in a Traditional Admissions World


Shellee Casiello,

Public Affairs Specialist

Seventh Point

peer influence plays a big part in the non-traditional student's decision making

Don’t underestimate peer influence. It plays a big part.

It was October 2010, I was on a vacation with my family celebrating my 40th birthday.  We were sitting at an outdoor café with a professor from Old Dominion University (ODU) that was our tour guide. My husband was getting his PhD and the ODU professor has a doctorate and 3 master’s degrees.

As soon as I mentioned that I always thought I would go back to school at some point, I started getting hit with questions, “Why haven’t you?” “What’s stopping you?”

All those questions that really made me think, “Is this something I really want to do?”

It was the perfect storm. I’m still not sure if it was turning 40, experiencing another culture on vacation (and drinking wine at noon) or the professor’s passion for education that convinced me.

At that exact moment, it was probably the wine.

non-traditional students have a better idea of what specific degree they want

Non-traditional students have a better idea of the specific degree program/experience they want and need clear communication on what they can expect.

When we got back, I began researching schools. I had graduated over 20 years before, so I knew I would not be successful if I attended a fully online program; I felt I didn’t have the discipline to be self-regulating. That narrowed my educational options.

I also knew I specifically wanted a Master’s in Business Administration; this narrowed my options even more. I finally decided on a Virginia school. It had a traditional curriculum with some online classes, so I could ease into that slowly.

For me – I’m a list maker, so I began my list for admissions.

I started online and tried to determine exactly what I needed to do before I had to reach out to the school directly. As my list of things to do grew, so did my questions.

The entire online admissions process seemed so cumbersome and confusing, I stumbled…a lot.

There were a few times that I became so frustrated with the disjointed process, duplication of information for different forms, deadlines, I questioned whether I was making the right decision.  “How could I get a master’s degree, if I can’t even get enrolled?”

One of the quickest ways to turn off a non-trad student prospect is for them to feel like they are going through the admissions process alone. Having someone empathize and guide you along the way helps…a lot.

Fortunately, I had the support of my family and they encouraged me to keep plugging along.  I was exhausted …and I was only in the admissions phase!

Finally, after researching everything I could online, I called the MBA admissions office and began the admissions process, officially.

The admissions person was very good about explaining exactly what I needed (often not matching what the website said I needed) and each step along the way. I applied in spring of 2012, accepted in the summer and scheduled to begin in the fall but due to a health issue it was postponed to January 2013.

HOT TIP for admissions and marketing personnel for reaching non-traditional students

Advice from the student for training an admissions rep:

Sit down at a computer and begin like a student would. How does the online process look, how does it start? That includes filling out the proper paperwork as requested of the prospect.
Review this process from the outside viewpoint at least once a year. Make sure the internal processes still match what is being asked of the prospect.

Have a simple step by step process that the rep can review with the student. Usually these working adults are going to be online working on this in the evenings, after work, after kids are in bed, etc. A simple list, 1. Do this, 2. Do this 3. Visit this weblink, etc.

Use flexible communication. Email worked best for me, because I was doing this late at night, I could respond on my time schedule.

HOT TIP for admissions and marketing personnel for reaching non-traditional studentsTo Help Prospective Non-Traditional Students:

Give them a to-do list with deadlines (once they have decided what semester they would like to start) then don’t assume they are making their way through the list.

Send a quick email or text check-up to them along the way. They may have a question and just haven’t had the time to ask.

Give them a nudge to let them know someone is helping them and expecting them to turn in certain items by a certain time.

In my case, I had to postpone my start to the program by a semester because of a health issue. – If your prospect needs to postpone, be understanding and supportive. The school did this and they also checked back with me a few weeks before the beginning to make sure I was signed up for my classes and ready to begin. I really felt like they were excited I was starting.

The non-traditional student needs real world applications to justify taking the time to continue their education.

When I was looking at graduate programs, I really wanted to make sure that I wasn’t “wasting my time (and money).” That the classes were interesting and relevant. If I was going to take a large portion of time away from my family (that is who feels the effect the most) then I wanted to make sure I was going to learn something that I would be able to apply immediately into my professional life.

higher education - life and work balance - going to school

Work – Life, or School – Life balance is even more important to the non-trad student who has to make time to even be there.

I was right about my need to physically go to class rather than self-manage with online courses. I did eventually take some online classes but it was well into my program. I’m a working mom with a household to run. I knew if I was home I wouldn’t find the time.

I took 1-2 classes three “semesters” a year (spring, summer and fall). I am happy to say, this last December (2016), I graduated from my MBA program. It was difficult, tear-inducing, usually exhausting experience, but I have my degree and no matter what happens I will always have that education.

A lot of things have changed in my life since January 2013, but I persevered, put my head down, did the work and sometimes it was just a matter of getting through that day. But the days, turn into weeks into months then, finally, you find yourself graduating.

One side benefit of the hard school work and studying, as a mother of a teenager, it’s a lot harder for them to complain about doing homework when they are witnessing you doing it on a daily basis. It sets a wonderful work ethic and attitude. It also shows them, that it’s hard and some days you don’t want to do the work, but you must.

What do you think is the best way to reach the non-traditional student? Comment below!

About Shellee

Shellee is intimately involved at every level our transportation and higher education public relations and community outreach efforts. She puts a face to projects that can feel faceless. Whether it’s creating presentations for local business and community groups, writing news releases, or creating and executing media plans (paid and earned), Shellee brings a level of follow-through and focus to her role that’s hard to beat