Learning While Wearing Work Clothes: Scheduling Difficulties and the Older Non-Traditional Student
### by [Steven Saus](https://stevensaus.com), Wright State University
What follows is the text of my presentation at the [2008 Quest for
Community Conference](http://www.wright.edu/quest/2008/). It contains
some new information that was not included in the presentation at the
[2008 North Central Sociological Association
meeting](http://www.ncsanet.org/meetings/). The full (academic) paper
The tables and appendicies (included in the paper, but broken out for
convenience) [are here
HTML5 Audio Player
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
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
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](img2.jpg)
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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 some time
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.
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
All text of this work is original (save the image of the postcard), and
is copyrighted under a [Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs Creative
### by [Steven Saus](https://stevensaus.com)