Pantages and Creedon (1978) have reported that the greatest attrition rate occurs among first-year students, and this group is not very likely to return to college at a later date. Even if they do drop out, the longer a student persists in a university or college setting the more likely it is that they will perceive attaining a degree as beneficial (Tinto, 1975). Additionally, retention studies have emphasized that social and academic integration at the school is a major factor in retention (Pascarella and Chapman, 1983). Attaining this integration is over a challenge for the non-traditional student, as they often commute to campus and are not around the college setting during the off hours when many social activities take place. Murguia, Padilla, and Pavel (1991) discovered that students in minority ethnic groups often had access to this social integration through groups, clubs and enclaves on campus aimed at their specific group. Bean (1980) found differences between the genders in the reasons for leaving school. Men need satisfaction in the role of a student, institutional commitment, being valued by the institution, a predictable and a stable routine. Women need to have a sense that the role of a student is routine, institutional commitment and quality programs. Institutional commitment -- the sense that the college or university understands their needs as non-traditional students and makes accommodations for such needs -- ranked as the most significant indicator of satisfaction for both groups. Another strong factor in student retention is the quality of the relationship between the student and faculty. (Pascarella & Tetrazini, 1980). Also relevant was how the student adjusted to college; a well-adjusted student is more likely to be persistent in finishing his or her degree. A 1991 study by Mooney, Sherman, and LoPresto found that this adjustment to college is affected by the student's level of self-esteem, a perception that the distance from home is "just right," and an internal "academic locus of control. A higher level of self-esteem and confidence contributed greatly to whether a student would make it through the chosen academic discipline.
There are numerous and varied factors that affect a non-traditional student's participation in and persistence at finishing college, and these often differ from factors that affect traditional students' attrition rates. Some factors are previous educational success, the availability of non-credit courses for people who lack in academic preparedness, and good communication from the school about educational programs. In their study, Villella and Hu (1991) discovered that the reality of time constraints of college terms (quarters, trimesters, etc.) and the amount of academic rigor required by university-level courses often led to student stress and dissatisfaction, especially among non-traditional students, who very often have other responsibilities to fit around their academic career, including working full- or part-time, caring for children, etc. Any of these factors, separately or combined, can result in non-traditional students leaving school when traditional students may have persevered.
A 2001 study performed by Bowl "points to the need for institutional change if non-traditional students are to thrive within a system that purports to be directed toward widening participation." The study found that non-traditional students are often frustrated with the lacking accommodation that has been made for their needs on college and university campuses (Bowl, 2001) Non-traditional students are already more likely to enter the school feeling lost and powerless, and entering into higher education can be a "struggle for personal, academic, financial and emotional survival" (Bowl, 2001). Non-traditional students who took part in the study often described their school days as being too much for them to fit into their already busy lives, and many felt they may have been better off in a vocational school setting. They also felt that by entering college at on older age they would be forced into the job market immediately upon graduation (Bowl, 2001). Non-traditional students are often juggling more than the traditional student simply because they are at different stages of their lives. Traditional students, who are usually 21 or 22 when they graduate college, will usually graduate and then start worrying about starting a family, buying a house, paying bills, etc. Non-traditional students already have these added stressors
In the area of non-traditional students, some researchers have turned their attention to examining the relationship of success in college and adult developmental stages. Gleazer (1980). uses Vivian R. McCoy's seven developmental stages as a way to look at non-traditional students and their possible paths to success. Each of the seven stages requires learning skills to handle life's basic tasks, and these tasks offer "teachable moments, because the motivation to learn the new skills and complete the tasks also contributes to the motivation to learn. Champagne and Petitpas (1989) argue that both traditional and non-traditional students are at a transition point, a teachable moment, in their lives that has led them to seek formal education. The specific tasks to learn may differ from group to group, but the transition process is very similar.
The profile of the college student has evolved over the past few decades, but so have the learning environments that the can access. Universities have recognized that people's lives are perpetually busy, especially the lives of non-traditional students who are not always able to take advantage of school breaks and vacations because they have families and work full-time (Buerck, Malmstrom and Peppers, 2002). To accommodate the ever-increasing time crunch of their students, schools have started offering courses online as well as in person. Non-traditional students can often return to school online when it would be impossible for them to return to an on-campus, classroom setting. It is also more difficult for the non-traditional student to move themselves and their families to attend school locally. Online courses enable these students to participate in higher education, regardless of where they live.
Interestingly, there has been little research into the actual experience of online learning (Vallee, 2007), particularly regarding the nontraditional, adult student. This gap is currently being filled, as many of the research studies on the efficacy of online learning is still ongoing. Most of the studies reviewed for this paper also bemoaned the lack of qualitative data with respect to the experiences and perceptions of online students, especially the non-traditional adult learner (Maxfield, 2008). This data is especially relevant, however, because the presence of an online learning environment could be a "major factor" in a non-traditional student returning to school (Tsai & Chuang, 2005).
Another issue for non-traditional students is whether they find the teaching they receive at a university to be effective. Traditional pedagogies simply aren't designed for the adult learner. Andragogy, or "adult learning" may be a necessity in the new college environment, instead of the option is now. As recently as 2001, current learning theories and models had failed to inform or influence instructional practices, especially in two of the places adult learners have the most access, distance and online learning (Barclay, 2001). Designing a workable method that enables non-traditional students to apply their knowledge immediately, while still being self-directed in their learning, could help create an effective delivery model. Non-traditional students need to move "away from their old habits and into new patterns of learning where they become self-directed, take responsibility for their own learning, and the direction it takes" (Fidishun, n.d., p. 3). Most non-traditional students are accustomed to being self-directed (Gibbons & Wentworth, 2001). If the professors allow them the freedom to learn and explore, there can be success and retention. Non-traditional students do not want to be made to feel like they are back in elementary school when they return to a university. With the help of technology, online learning has been able to balance the need for both self-directed learning and traditional classroom learning, which non-traditional students often still feel attached to.
Higher education is now, more than ever, an option for the non-traditional student. As Buerck, et al. pointed out, "Research has demonstrated that key components within the learning environment, such as openness, community, interpersonal interaction, and accessibility, can be enhanced through the use of advanced technologies in the classroom…and offers potential benefits (e.g. increased retention and convenience, lower cost, the ability to transcend geographical barriers) compared to traditional environments" (2002).
A study done by Buerck et al. (2002) examines the retention of non-traditional students in an online vs. lecture-based computer science course. The participants in the study were all non-traditional students in computer science who were given the option of taking this particular course online or in person. The researchers designed the study with the independent variable as learning environment and the dependent variable was the student's final grade in the class. The findings were that there was no significant difference in final grades (Buerck et al. 2002). There is one caveat to the study, in that the researchers felt that the students who took the course online probably did better in it because they decided on that learning environment voluntarily. This study is also nine years old,…