Most of the undergraduates headed for or returning to college this year will be inundated with welcome week and orientation events designed to connect them with classmates, help them find extracurricular activities and clubs, and make them feel at home on campus.
The festivals and concerts may appeal to students in the traditional college age range of 18 to 24, but older students, an ever-increasing population on American campuses, often want something different.
These older students are often professionals with full-time jobs. They may have children and be balancing family responsibilities while attending college. They might only take classes part-time. They may not have time for lengthy events or feel they don’t need the extra fluff that often comes with typical orientations. They want information pared down to simply learn what they need to earn their degrees.
Enrollment in college by those older than 25 has been steadily increasing in recent decades. It increased by 11 percent between 2006 and 2016. More than seven million students ages 25 and older are attending college in fall 2019, according to federal data.
“They’re really focused on finishing,” said David Duvall, director of the New Maverick Orientation and Transition program at the University of Texas at Arlington. “Anything we can do to help them with that, that’s what this program is all about.”
Almost every institution offers orientation programs introducing all students to campus. The programs have grown and evolved so much over the years that many universities now hold separate events for parents of incoming freshmen. More recently, colleges have started offering orientations designed for nontraditional students, such as those over age 25.
In a 2017 survey of 229 institutions, conducted by NODA, the Association for Orientation, Transition and Retention in Higher Education, 35 percent offered orientation for "nontraditional" students.
Joyce Holl, NODA’s executive director, said many of these institutions sponsor weeklong programs prior to the start of the academic year to help older students and others. But she said colleges should also have “many touch points” or interactions with these students throughout the semester to ensure their academic needs are being met.
“What is offered and how may be different for each population,” Holl said.
Dan Nimlos was 25 when he started his undergraduate studies in 2009 at Bethel University, an evangelical institution in Minnesota. He'd taken a few years off after high school to explore being a musician and didn't want to rack up debt.
He met with an enrollment counselor before classes officially began and was given a list of his courses, but not much more. So he wandered around campus, confused about where to go or to whom to ask questions in the first few days after classes started. He points to his cursory introduction to the campus as one of the reasons he took the job as Bethel’s student experience manager in charge of running the orientation program for nontraditional students.
Bethel's orientation involves an online class that provides useful information such as how to submit assignments and fill out financial aid forms online, how to connect to the campus Wi-Fi and complete various other tasks, on or off campus. The class is a subtle acknowledgment of, and accommodation for, the needs of students who've not been in college for many years and who may be overwhelmed by the new technology on campus, Nimlos said.
“There is a lot of self-doubt … questions about, 'How do I find my footing here?' And a good part of this is how we assuage those fears,” he said.
Technology tends to also be a barrier for the older students at Peirce College, a private institution in Philadelphia that caters to “adult learners” and working professionals. The average age of the students there is 35, said Shannon Begley, the college’s dean of academic advising and registrar.
Peirce's orientation program offers classes in time management and balancing college and personal life, Begley said.
Most students don’t have time to sit through hours-long sessions on all aspects of the college, so students can attend one of the six orientation sessions Peirce holds throughout the year. Representatives from different departments on campus are on hand at these sessions to help students with a checklist of tasks that must be completed before they start classes.
Begley said she’s had conversations with adult students who have struggled to adapt to college but let their pride keep them from them seeking help. Linking those students with a mentor they feel comfortable with can help chip away at that sense of pride, Begley said.
“We try to give you all the things from when you enter the door, so it becomes a natural part of your experience here at Peirce,” she said.
Administrators need to recognize that nontraditional and older students have needs that are distinct from younger college students, said R. Lee Viar IV, president of the Association for Nontraditional Students in Higher Education.
He also believes the two biggest obstacles adult students face are time management and technology. But they need to feel comfortable to get help in those areas. Having separate orientations for older students addresses such concerns, he said.
Institutions should not let a teenage guide give students in their 40s or 50s tours of campus, for instance, Viar said.
“That’s the same age as their kids -- they won’t ask questions,” he said.
Once orientation is over, however, institutions should try to integrate all students regardless of their age brackets. The younger learners tend to have more experience with technology, and their older counterparts often have “life experiences” that can be useful or interesting in classes, Viar said.
Duvall, at UT Arlington, said his institution offers a half-day program for nontraditional students, which can be students 25 and older or those belonging to other demographic groups.
Part of that orientation involves introducing students with the same major, which can result in students of different ages mixing, he said. But most of the program focuses on “need-to-know” information such as how to pay fees and tuition, campus safety protocols, and medical and mental health services. Older students had complained in the past that the full-day orientation they were required to participate in took up too much time and included information about broader campus culture that they were not interested in, Duvall said.
About 1,200 to 1,500 students participated in the course during the last academic year, Duvall said. UT Arlington also holds an orientation session on Saturday for students who work full-time.
“I think they really are surprised by all that campuses have to offer,” he said.