Learning While Wearing Work Clothes:
Scheduling Difficulties and the Older Non-Traditional Student

by Steven Saus, Wright State University

What follows is the text of my presentation at the 2008 Quest for Community Conference.  It contains some new information that was not included in the presentation at the 2008 North Central Sociological Association meeting.  The full (academic) paper is online (PDF).  The tables and appendicies (included in the paper, but broken out for convenience) are here (PDF).

I would love to be employed as an academic, just like my wife.  It's not the prestige, or the high wages.  It is the lunches.

You see, I called my wife at twelve-thirty last week.  She had been meeting a colleague of hers for lunch at eleven. When I called her, she had just left the restraunt.   From her point of view, it was a "short" lunch.  It was twice the length of the "long" lunches at my workplace.

While amusing, this highlights the ways that even our common experiences - something as fundamental as scheduling lunchtime - can be marked by our assumptions.   Today, I am going to talk about the difficulties of older students within the framework of higher education's class schedule.   We'll talk about why college is important to older students, and how older students are important to colleges, universities, and local communities.  We'll review the literature and its assumptions, and review the results of a study I conducted locally.  Finally, we'll come to some of my conclusions, examine my assumptions, and brainstorm among ourselves some other potential problems - and solutions.

The study of nontraditional students has become a Big Deal in the last twenty years.   Estimates of non-traditional students at colleges and universities are up to 75% nationally.  But what, exactly, is a non-traditional student?   While definitions seem to vary by researcher, there were some common threads that came out.

Care for another * Employed > 20h/wk * Independent of their parents * Delay between HS graduation and college * Lives off campus * Attends part-time * Over the age of 25

I concentrated on those over the age of 25.  There are several reasons.  First, *I* am over the age of 25, so I'm interested in seeing what other students in this category with me are like.  secondly, that criteria is nearly half (45%) of all non-traditional students.  Put another way, that's a third of all undergraduates nationally.  

That kind of importance is going to increase and be reciprocal.  As the Baby Boom and its echo have passed, older students are a larger percentage of the population.  further, more older persons are going back to school to deal with the economic pressures brought on by globalization and a changing postindustrial landscape.

Older students are also more important to the community.  This is not a radical idea, and ties directly into the ten-year strategic plan for Ohio's University Systems, and the strategic plan for many postsecondary institutions within the state.  Specifically, Ohio's strategic plan calls for keeping more of our graduates within Ohio, and many universities - such as Wright State - have strategic plans that call for developing the region.   These goals are tied together with older students.

When you look at the literature, older students select thier schools differently than other types of students.  They do not select for prestige, percieved quality, or prestige - they select for convenience factors.  They look for price and the distance from home.   Older students are more likely to be from the region you're located in.

And they're more likely to stay there after graduation.  Management journals continue to examine factors that influence people's willingness to relocate.  Consistently, older employees are less likely to move away to follow a career.  They're tied to the community, whether through families or mortgages, or just sense of "place".  Therefore, it's reasonable to think that the same effect will hold with older students.   They - unlike relatively rootless traditional-age students - are more likely to stay where they were educated.  Investing in their education is investing directly in your region.

These factors together provide a compelling reason why universities and colleges are important to older students - and why older students are important to them. Older students are also distinct from the other kinds of non-traditional students.  Thier parent's educational status is a POOR indicator of dropout risk, unlike some other types of nontraditional students.

Older students also tend to define themselves as employees that study, not students who work.  That is, home and work concerns are not simply a background, but the integral part of thier lives. 

This suggests that the correlation between age and dropout rate is indirect - older people have more obligations that take them away from schooling.  It also explains why a simple metric of hours at work is a poor predictor of dropout risk - it is how the work and school life fit together that matters.  Older students are less likely to drop out if they feel "satisfied" with thier education, and interpret it as "career relevant."

So older students  are different in the ways they select thier schools, and the ways they define themselves.  Their success can't be predicted simply by how much they are doing - but by a more complex metric of how much they feel it's worth it. When older students discuss difficulties, they usually talk about finances, childcare, and the availability of classes as problems in thier college career.  The financial aspect - and providing childcare - is outside the scope of my research.  But what about class availability?  When you look at the literature, it's equivocal or even conflicting about class conflicts and class availability for older students.  

I found one study that suggested some answers.  They had online students, and noted that the older online students were frequently part time students as well.  Having only one class per quarter means there's few conflicts between your classes!  They also found that older students tended to prefer the online sections of the class to the lecture halls.   Another researcher found an indirect suggestion that students would prefer alternative class times, as in other online classes students would frequently access the site well outside traditional daytime class hours.

Still, this is indirect evidence at best, by trying to string together several different researcher's work.  And as I noted earlier, the definitions of non-traditional students vary between researchers.   And to complicate things even further, nearly all the research I found in my literature review concentrated on a disease model.  That is, they focused on dropout rates and exit interviews - what went "wrong" rather than what older students wanted.   Remember the assumptions my wife and I made about how long "lunch" is.  The questions you ask can determine the answers you'll get. So I attempted to rectify these problems, examining the impact of class schedules and class availability on older postsecondary students.  I wanted to answer the questions "What factors provide the greatest impact on difficulties scheduling classes?"  and "What class times and styles do students - particularly older returning students - want"?

I conducted a survey of a convenience sample of 241 respondents.  These respondents were taking undergraduate sociology classes - including ones that were required "core curriculum" classes.  This meant that I got a wide assortment of majors, and hopefully a wide diversity of students in my convenience sample.


Many students reported problems for a variety of reasons.  That nearly 2/3 of the respondents chose a class merely because of the time it was offered is a tragedy.

We see that the greatest problems here are because of conflicts with other classes and structural problems therein.

Only a third of the respondents reported having difficulties due to their work schedule - and only four percent reported problems due to childcare.  Were these really not that big of a deal?

To help triangulate this problem, I created a problem scheduling index that compiled all seven of the above criteria.  I then compared this index with other questions that attempted to approach the problem in different directions.

I had five hypotheses, which we'll cover briefly.

The first hypothesis was:
The degree of financial support a respondent provides for their family will increase their difficulty in scheduling classes.

The second hypothesis was:  working full time increases the difficulty in scheduling classes.  I tested this by both comparing those who worked more than 36 hours vs those who didn't.  I also looked at the relationship between hours worked and their difficulty in scheduling classes. 
 
All of these hypotheses were upheld by the results.

My third hypothesis was that the degree of family care obligations a respondent provides will increase their difficulty in scheduling classes.
This was partially upheld.  Despite the low numbers of respondents who saw childcare as a difficulty, it had a significant correlation to an increased score on the problem index. 

The support of adult relatives did NOT seem to have a relationship.

The increase in problems caused by childcare is more dramatic when plotted.  The green respondents - those who supported children at all - is visibly distributed towards the right hand side of the graph.
graph
My fourth hypothesis was that older students were more likely to have problems.  This was completely upheld.

Older students are more likely to have problems.  Indeed, we could say that older students are more problematic than children.

So, in short, the more financial support you provide for your family, the harder it is to schedule classes.  Taking care of children makes it harder to schedule classes.  Being older correlates with it being harder to schedule classes.

My last hypothesis was that Older students will be more likely to take evening classes over web classes.  Further, that older students would be more likely to take evening classes than day classes.

Older students are not particularly fond of daytime classes;  age has a significant negative relationship with their likelihood of taking a daytime class.

Older students clearly seem to prefer alternative class styles.  There are significant positive correlations between age and desire for all styles of evening classes and Saturday classes.  The desire for web classes is, however, not significant.

This may be due to an incidental finding.  The strongest positive predictor for the desire to take web classes was whether or not the respondent had taken a web class before.

Still, none of these correlations is very strong.  They're all significant - but I was really expecting to find very strong correlations.   My advisor for this project let me know about one of her students, and that helped shift me out of my assumptions.  I work day shift, so I am always looking for evening classes.  Another one of her students was in a similar situation - but they work second shift, and have to be at work at 3pm. I had problems scheduling classes that started before 5pm;  they had problems scheduling class that ended after 3pm!

When I went back and looked at the data for class preferences, there were two distinct markets.  First, there was a traditional market.  This group strongly wanted daytime classes two or three times a week - but had negative correlations for any other style or time of classes.

Conversely, there was a non-traditional market that wanted classes on the web, on Saturday, and on evenings.

That explains two things.   First, it explains why I only found moderately strong positive correlations in my data.  Many of these older students work during the day - but there are different ways they've made it work.  Some work evening or night shifts.  Some are attending college while thier kids are at school.  Policymakers have to account for these different and exclusive markets for classes.

But it also brings us back to this slide.

 By positing that we have two different markets for classes, this data makes sense.  Remember, older students see themselves as "workers who study."   Students experiencing schedule conflicts with either set of limited offerings don't see these things as a problem - they can't change. 


Instead - they see it as a conflict with the limited class offerings at the school.  It's not just how many classes are offered - but when and how they are offered as well.

So we saw that older students do tend to prefer alternative classes - but there's a sizable number who prefer ONLY daytime classes.   We also saw again that our perspective limits our interpretation of the data.

First note that this data, while a convenience study, almost certainly under represents the problem.  These are the students who have been successful in making it work.  Those whose problems were greater have already left, and may never return.  Therefore, the problems reported here are almost certainly less than they would be among all those who want to be students - but haven't been able to figure out how to make it work.

Since I've began on this project, I've had a number of people approach me with thier stories.   There are three in particular that highlight how our perspectives and assumptions have large effects on student populations.   I penned a letter to the editor here about this. One online commenter said they were in the college of business here, and had no problem whatsover completing their degree in the evening.  Even within a single institution, there can be lots of variation between departments.  Secondly, I was approached by a student at another university.  They told me about how the latest evening classes ended at 945pm.  That wasn't his problem, though - it was that the garages students parked in were locked for the night fifteen minutes later.  I've walked across that school's campus;  fifteen minutes to get from one side to the other is a respectable pace - and nearly impossible if you happened to, say, be on crutches.   And finally, a professor here offered one of his required classes for a major a little bit later in the evening - at 4pm.  He did not figure that it would be well-attended;  they planned on perhaps fifty students.  There were 180.

All of these stories illustrate the difficulties in finding any kind of universal solution.  The assumptions and norms of academic life are as invisible as any other structure of power.  So what I invite you to do is to turn to your neighbors.  We'll take __________ minutes to briefly discuss what I've talked about here.  Then we'll share our stories and insights into the issues facing older students so we can take those back to our own institutions - whether they be universities, businesses, or communities.

We have talked about the increasing importance of postsecondary education to older students, and the importance of older students to universities, colleges, and communities.   We discussed what made older students different, the literature about thier problems, and the study I did locally.  We saw that my study showed  two main markets for classes - a traditional time market and an alternative time market.  Finally, we brainstormed some different perspectives to help us see outside our own biases and limitations.  There is a lot of room for future study to separate out the different effects on students.  We can provide the full requirements for degree programs during different time blocks, and we can acclimatize students quickly to taking classes on the Web. Still, let me leave you with this last story

This presentation - this study - almost didn't happen.  A year ago, my enrollment dropped from full-time to a single class.  I wanted to take more classes - but I work a full-time job during the day.  I had already taken all the evening classes that were offered in my major, and did not know what to do.  I nearly dropped out - my shift schedule couldn't change enough,  and I wasn't willing to change majors.  I had already started the pilot of this project, but even that seemed to be a depressing self-fulfilling prophecy.

Then I read PostSecret that week.  PostSecret is a website where people send in anonymous secrets on handmade postcards.  Every Sunday, about a dozen new secrets appear on the website.

This secret appeared that weekend.   http://www.postsecret.com

My difficulties are offset by a large helping of personal capital.  Both then and through this current year, I would be unable to take classes without the aid and understanding of professors at my university.  A sudden bursar's bill hurt - but did not bankrupt my family.  It is hard, working full time and maintaining a full-time schedule at school.

And then I remember that postcard, and realize that I have it easy. 

We who are making it work, who have made it work, have an obligation to those just starting on this academic journey.  We have an obligation to  help others face as fewer obstacles as we did, to help them succeed.

Thank you for your time, and please enjoy your lunch and the rest of the conference.

All text of this work is original (save the image of the postcard), and is copyrighted under a Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs Creative Commons license.