Leaving The Basement Of The Ivory Tower: Non-Traditional Students Can Make The Grade

In 2008, the academic world was rocked by an article in the elite magazine The Atlantic. Titled "In the Basement of the Ivory Tower," the author (who wouldn't give his or her name, choosing the name "Professor X") taught in a school's evening college somewhere. The author painted a bleak portrait, scaring off plenty of would-be teachers of non-traditional students.

I probably would have joined them in shunning LaGrange College's Evening College, but I was asked to help out a professor and take over a class. Knowing Professor X's horror stories (now expanded into a book), I must admit it was a little nerve-wracking, preparing for the worst. But this professor, used to traditional students, learned a little something about these non-traditional students.

A traditional student is one who is between 18 and 22, taking college right where high school left off, often traveling some distance from home. Not all have a full-time job, and few if any are married and have kids. Non-traditional students tend to be older than 22, and have not taken a college course in some time. Most are close to home, and work full-time. Many are married, and have families to juggle, in addition to their jobs and classes. And some believe they will struggle with college.

I learned that non-traditional students do have some struggles. They tend to be shy, nervous about their abilities, and need plenty of encouragement. Their skills could often use a bit of polish. "I haven't written a paper since Reagan was president," one noted.

These students are also more likely to read their material than their more traditional counterparts, and form study groups. They are more willing to ask for help, rather than avoid assistance. And their ability to connect the material to life experiences is typically better than what a traditional student can offer.

Professor X does provide a final argument. These non-traditional students are "preserved in the amber of 1990," as he or she writes, unable to master much in the way of technology. But was that the case? Since I teach in a hybrid format (combining in-person classes with an online platform for slides, practice exams, sample papers and presentations, and a gradebook for them to keep up with their assignments and scores), I decided to test whether these students could master the computer components.

Sure enough, I found that these students could generally download the online material, thanks to the college's in-person tutorial and assistance, as well as other faculty and staff ready to help (in an article titled "Asking 'Y' of Professor X"). Those who did so scored much higher on initial papers, tests and presentations, just like traditional students did in an earlier research project of mine (titled "Would a Hybrid Be More Efficient?"). But by the end of the class, the results were nearly indistinguishable, as all had learned how to master the computer, and achieve comparable scores. Both sets of findings are both published in the journal titled "The Online Classroom."

I've also taken the students on field trips, to the college president's house for a nice dinner, to an anti-poverty group's supper and meeting, and even a town-hall event on racism, where every student found his or her voice to boldly participate (even though it wasn't required). I invited them to my house for a pre-Christmas party. And many remain Facebook friends, sharing their stories of life pursuits and academic accomplishments.

Perhaps you are reading this, and you are one of those non-traditional students, eager to go back to college, or start for the first time in years. But you're not sure if you can keep pace with the other students, or deal with the professor teaching the course, at a place like LaGrange College's Evening College, or a comparable school. I hope this article encourages you to think twice about turning down such an opportunity, and to consider what you can bring to the classroom.

"Professor Tures," one remarked. "When I heard we were 'non-traditional,' I thought it was a put-down, at first. But now I see that term can mean that we're pretty special." I couldn't agree more.

John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga. He can be reached at jtures@lagrange.edu.