How to Retain Non-Traditional, First-Generation College Students | D2L Middle East & Africa
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How to Retain Non-Traditional, First-Generation College Students

  • 3 Min Read

Important strategies college educators can use to support and encourage retention among these groups.

This blog builds on a conversation we started in a previous post that looked at success strategies encouraging retention that can be implemented right at the start of students’ postsecondary careers. If you haven’t had a chance to read the previous post, we encourage you to do so.

Who are non-traditional and first-generation college students?

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, non-traditional students are typically over 24 years old, have family and work responsibilities, and are looking for degree programs that are flexible in terms of how courses are delivered and how quickly they can be completed.

Non-traditional students are a growing demographic74% of all 2011-2012 undergraduates had at least one non-traditional characteristic—looking for opportunities to complete their degree, enhance knowledge and skills associated with their current career, or acquire new skills and knowledge so they can switch careers.

First-generation college students are often defined as learners whose parents did not enroll in postsecondary education institutions. According to the Postsecondary National Policy Institute, first-generation students are more likely to be older and have dependents than their non-first-generation peers.

In many cases, first-generation learners face additional academic stress in traditional postsecondary educational settings, including things like a lack of parental involvement, financial constraints, non-traditional family structures, conflicts with college culture, insufficient academic preparation and limited knowledge about college.

Support Strategies

The balance of academic study and other life commitments can be a challenge for non-traditional and first-generation learners.

To successfully attract and retain more of these students, college educators must be willing to think more inclusively about their programs, offer better support and encourage student success for a more broadly defined adult audience.

Creating and making resources available to these learners that reinforce positive study habits, scheduling and a healthy work-school-life balance can be tremendously helpful.

Here are some important strategies to consider when creating and structuring learning opportunities for non-traditional and first-generation students:

Involve them in program planning and implementation: Ask non-traditional and first-generation learners to help with orientation for new learners like them. Also, appointing them to serve on advisory boards and solicit their suggestions for learning activities.

Reflect students’ life experience in lessons and activities: Draw on learners’ personal experiences, developmental stages, and problems as a foundation for learning new things. This approach makes the classroom more authentic because adults learn to use skills in relevant, real-life situations.

Respect learners’ culture, knowledge, and experiences: It’s important to develop an understanding of a learners’ experiences and communities. The challenge of personalizing instruction to meet individual needs is that the process can overlook issues of gender, race, and class—issues that represent realities that many first-generation and non-traditional learners face in their day-to-day lives.

Create small groups and incorporate them into learning activities: The advantages of using small groups include opportunities for peer support, and creating a cooperative, inclusive and participatory environment that’s less hierarchical and ordered as traditional approaches.


If non-traditional and first-generation students embrace good study habits and tools to better leverage learning early on, it will be a benefit to them for the rest of their professional lives.


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