The term 'non-traditional student' is useful for describing different groups of students that are in some way underrepresented in Higher Education (HE) and whose participation is constrained by structural factors (RHANLE 2009). Thus, this category includes, among others, disabled or mature students, women, first generation HE students, working-class or specific ethnic groups who do not fit the ‘traditional’ group. The non-traditional student is therefore a fluid concept that we should view according to the context characteristics.
The first studies concerning non-traditional students were focused on understanding factors that cause students to withdraw from university, such as adjustment, difficulty or isolation (Tinto 1993). Researchers argue that withdrawal is influenced by the level of academic achievement; academic and psychological factors; student's background variables and environmental motives such as finances, employment and family responsibilities (Bean and Metzner 1985). Over time, different sets of motives have been determined to be the cause of high dropouts, including social class (Bamber and Tett 1999), gender and ethnicity, the shock of moving to HE accompanied by feelings of personal powerlessness (Bowl 2001) or the level of the student’s expectations (Laing Chao and Robinson 2005).
Even if all these issues are important and determinant to non-traditional student’s situation, we also want to look beyond dropout and success or, at least, to challenge the nature of these concepts and debate to what extent are they adequate to non traditional student's life contexts. For us, non-traditional students are not a "problem" – even if sometimes HE policy or academic management view them as such. Hence, and despite the fact that non-traditional student's perspectives and experiences are central to understand their situation, the learning environment in Higher Education Institutions (HEI) management guidelines, and specific pedagogical dimensions are also important to take into account. And instead of asking how should non-traditional students "adapt" higher education, maybe it is possible to get a better understanding on the context, uncovering ways in which HEI can be more flexible and adapt, institutionally or conceptually, to the structural conditions present in non-traditional student’s lives.
The Portuguese context and our research project on non-traditional students in HEI
In the last few decades, the number of students in HE in Portugal has been increasing steadily, especially when we consider women. The Bologna process, recently implemented in our country, brought many changes to HEI. One of these changes refers to a law that enabled students older than 23 to have special conditions to access HE. Starting in the academic year 2006/07, Portuguese universities implemented this law, increasing the number of non-traditional students in HEI. The access process includes three phases: first, people take a written test in their chosen area of scientific study in HE (the candidates who have negative grades are eliminated); second, the student's curriculum vitae is evaluated (including professional experience, training, etc.); and third, an individual interview is conducted. The present situation of making access easier for adults could eventually lead to the assumption that access problems were 'solved'. Widening HE accessibility is intended to promote social mobility and social development. However, to achieve these goals, students must stay in HE with significant levels of success (whichever way the term is defined) and satisfaction.
Considering this particular context, the Universities of Algarve and Aveiro are conducting a research project designed to understand in depth the holistic situation of a specific group of non-traditional student's, that is, those that entered HE through the 'over 23 years old' means of access since the academic year 2006/07. Our project is called "Non-traditional students in HEI: searching solutions to improve the academic sucess"¹. Taking into account the perspectives of students, staff and management, we want to give our institutions a number of recommendations to improve non-traditional students' academic reality. The first year of the project was devoted to building and analysing the results of a survey of both students and staff. We also initiated focus group interviews; we gathered a heterogeneous group of students who have entered university, and we will follow the evolution of their perceptions during the three years of their bachelor's degree. The second year of the project is devoted to biographical interviews to students and lecturers and semi-structured interviews with staff that have responsibilities in the various levels of management. Altogether, we conducted in Aveiro and Algarve about 140 interviews.
This seminar will take place in the last phase of this research project. It is our hope that we are able to discuss with the seminar participant's some of the conclusions of our investigation. Our aim is to know investigations on the same field, to disseminate our results and contribute to a better understanding of the theme, both nationally and internationally.
1-Project PTDC/CPE-CED/108739/2008, funded by the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT).
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