Scott: Traditional Students Could Learn a Thing or Two From Their Non-Traditional Classmates



Access to education is an increasingly popular issue among Americans. College is expensive — in the last 30 years, public two-year and private four-year schools doubled tuition costs and in-state tuition at public four-year schools tripled. States responded with different mechanisms to reduce tuition and student loans with a shared goal of offering more Americans — especially non-traditional students — a chance to change their lives.

There are many merits to reduced education costs, but the opportunity it offers to non-traditional students is among the most important. According to the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, non-traditional students meet at least one of seven characteristics — delayed enrollment in postsecondary education, part-time attendance, full-time employment, financial independence, having dependents other than a spouse, being a single parent or lacking a high school diploma. External circumstances may have postponed their education, but reduced tuition may open the door. With 47% of current students aged twenty-five years or older, AASCU argues non-traditional is already the new traditional.

As such, a reassessment of our perception of non-traditional students is long overdue. Non-traditional students face many logistical barriers, but they also experience social challenges. Unfortunately, bullying can persist into college, and I have seen several unpleasant slights from traditional students against our non-traditional classmates. It usually occurs when a student, often noticeably older than their classmates, makes a faux pas. Some are unversed in the shibboleths of academia. Others have an unpopular or even offensive opinion. Either way, they are quickly — and sometimes literally — dubbed “the Boomer” and their rapport with the class is shot.

“Ok boomer” is the punchy, satisfying retort of young people who have been unjustly drawn as petulant, freeloading brats. But it really doesn’t have a place in an institution of learning. It can be used unfairly, and even when it’s not, it discourages communication — if a classmate is spreading bigotry or falsities, we’d do better to combat it with assertive, intellectual muscle than a meme. College isn’t meant to reinforce stereotypes, and writing off non-traditional students cultivates a culture of superiority among traditional students who have plenty to learn themselves.

You never know if your class is the first formal academic setting a non-traditional student has entered in years. Traditional students who feel annoyed by their presence ought to take this into consideration and lead with empathy and respect. No one likes to be reduced to a caricature, and non-traditional students are not monolithic. Many work full time to support their kids or are serving as caretakers for old or sick relatives. Some are first-generation students, immigrants, veterans or formerly incarcerated individuals. College is supposed to expand one’s understanding of the world, and these students can offer diverse life experiences that enrich the classroom.

I remember a particularly polarizing classmate in my Communication course on hot-button socio-political issues. One day brought a particularly emotional discussion on Colin Kaepernick and the ethics of kneeling before the flag. Like the majority of the class, I didn’t agree with my classmate’s take on the situation, but rather than joining in on the groans and eye rolls, I began a conversation with her about it. That conversation led to friendship, and while I still disagree with her, I ended up learning more about persuasive communication skills from talking with her than I did from the class. If I had participated in ostracizing her, I would have degraded her and undercut an important aspect of my own education.

Over half of Americans “between the ages of 18 and 29 support eliminating tuition and fees at public colleges” for students in need. Traditional students understand how access to education and freedom from student loans would change their lives, which is why it is unacceptable when they make fun of non-traditional students who would greatly benefit from increased access. If the line is “free college for anyone who wants it,” institutions must ensure that the influx of non-traditional students receive the respect they deserve. You can’t champion increased access to education and mock the proverbial boomer classmate in the same breath.

Non-traditional students are here because they work hard. Each of their stories is one of resilience, of getting back on the horse in pursuit of a better life. College should recognize that and take pains to be just as welcoming to non-traditional students as it is to those who are fresh out of high school. Traditional students should avoid presuming they have a better view of the world than a student whose academic path has been delayed. A college environment allows us each other’s differences, and we should take advantage of that. And while college isn’t necessarily about ideological conversion, it’s far easier to bring a classmate around to your point of view by treating them as a person than by writing them off as an outsider.


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