Mattering and Marginality: Are Faculty the Key to Helping Post-Traditional Students Succeed?


As educators, we always strive to help our students succeed. However, the face of the student population is shifting. A post-traditional learner, formerly known as a non-traditional student, is a student that has at least one of the following characteristics: financially independent, delayed enrollment, employed full-time, enrolled part-time, has children, obtained a GED or high school certificate, and/or is a single parent (Choy, 2002). The National Center for Education Statistics (2018) estimates that this population is set to continue growing. Unsurprisingly, post-traditional students face a unique set of challenges that may make their educational journey difficult. This begs the question, how do we best support post-traditional learners? 

The answer may be a bit more traditional— with the instructors. Whether students are completing their courses online, in the classroom, or through a hybrid of the two, faculty members are likely the most consistent source of institutional interaction that post-traditional students have. 

What the Research Says 

Numerous studies have indicated that when institutions are accommodating to post-traditional students' needs, these students are more likely to succeed (Bergman, 2012; Bergman et al., 2014). Positive perceptions of mattering have been linked to post-traditional attrition (Bergman, 2012; Bergman et al., 2014; Levin, 2007; Noel-Levitz & CAEL, 2013; Schlossberg et al., 1990). Regrettably, post-traditional students have more unmet needs than traditional students (Levin, 2007). When these needs are left unmet, post-traditional students feel that they do not matter or fit in (Noel-Levitz & CAEL, 2013; Schlossberg, 1990; Schlossberg et al., 1990). Ultimately, students who do not feel like they fit in are more likely to leave the institution (Noel-Levitz & CAEL, 2013; Schlossberg, 1989; Schlossberg et al., 1990). Conversely, when students feel that they fit in, their needs are met, and have feelings of mattering, it can increase the student's likelihood to persist (Noel-Levitz & CAEL, 2013; Schlossberg, 1990; Schlossberg et al., 1990).

Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, faculty members can help post-traditional students establish a sense of belonging, or mattering. Mattering is more than just a concept– it has long been linked to student persistence. Research suggests that positive student-faculty relationships produce positive outcomes in the form of college life satisfaction (Rosenthal et al., 2000), academic success (Anaya & Cole, 2001; Jacobi, 1991), social integration (Schwitzer et al., 1999), increased motivation (Pascarella, 1980), and student persistence (Pascarella & Terenzini, 1977).

Mattering in Practice

Knowing what we do about post-traditional learners, faculty-student relationships, and mattering, how do we ensure that we are active scholar-practitioners? Instructors can do the following to make their classrooms more post-traditionally friendly: 

  • Be the Source of Knowledge: First and foremost, faculty should recognize the importance of their relationships with post-traditional students. As the primary source of institutional contact, faculty should consider what institution wide information needs to be shared with post-traditional students in the classroom. This could come in the form of resource-sharing, access to student services, or even how to use institutional tools/facilities. 
  • Be Accessible: Faculty should consider adjusting how and when they are available to their students. Many post-traditional students have full-time jobs and are unable to go to a professor’s office during the daytime– virtual office hours could be held during the evening when post-traditional students have more time to meet. Actively using the institution's learning management system will also help establish a digital presence for both in-person and online-only students. 
  • Recognized Lived Experiences: Post-traditional students are a rich source of knowledge. Encourage students to share their lived experiences with their classmates as it relates to course material. This can be done both in the classroom space as well as the learning management system. Encourage students to interact with each other to deepen their understanding of the subject and form invaluable connections with others. 

Institutions must also play a role in facilitating and empowering the efforts of faculty members to serve their diverse student population: 

  • Offer Professional Development: Institutions can (and should) help enable faculty to engage with and help post-traditional students. This could come in the form of round-table discussions, formal training, or workshops geared toward understanding the post-traditional student plight. Consider inviting a panel of post-traditional students to speak with faculty members about their experiences! 
  • Reassess Programming and Services: In addition to faculty training improvement, institutions could evaluate current programming for post-traditional students and consider revising or adding additional services. These services should also be evaluated for usability during the ongoing pandemic to ensure that home-bound students have the same accessibility as their in-person counterparts. 
  • Make Space: Last, institutions may want to create a physical space for post-traditional students to gather and share their experience. For those students who are unable to come into a physical space, consider offering a digital one! 

The face of education has shifted dramatically since the pandemic and has demonstrated the resiliency of students, faculty, and institutions alike. We are once again tasked to adjust how we serve our students. This time, the key to persistence may just lie within the interpersonal relationships that faculty are already working hard to develop!


About the Author: 

Dr. Annelise Ewing Goodman is a passionate educator and Manager for the Canvas Credentials, Impact, and Canvas Student Pathways Customer Success Teams at Instructure. In addition to her work at Instructure, she teaches Communication Studies and Theatre courses as an adjunct instructor. Her research interests include post-traditional students, education technology, interpersonal communication, and accessibility. 

Curious to learn more about post-traditional students and their perceptions of mattering? Check out her most recent study below: 

Annelise Ewing Goodman (2022) Post-Traditional Students’ Perceptions of Mattering: The Role of Faculty and Student Interaction, The Journal of Continuing Higher Education, DOI: 10.1080/07377363.2022.2108642


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Bergman, M., Gross, J. P. K., Berry, M., & Shuck, B. (2014). If life happened but a degree didn’t: Examining factors that impact adult student persistence. Journal of Continuing Higher Education, 62, 90-101. doi: 10.1080/07377363.2014.915445

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Noel-Levitz & Center for Adult and Experiential Learning. (2013). National adult learners satisfaction-priorities report. education/2013/2013-national- student-satisfaction-and-priorities-report

National Center for Education Statistics. (2018). Nontraditional undergraduates: Definitions and data.

Pascarella, E. T. (1980). Student-faculty informal contact and college outcomes. Review of Educational Research, 50(4), 545–595.

Pascarella, E. T., & Terenzini, P. T. (1977). Patterns of student-faculty informal interaction beyond the classroom and voluntary freshman attrition. The Journal of Higher Education, 48(5), 540–552. doi:10.2307/1981596

Rosenberg, M. & McCullough, B. C. (1981). Mattering: Inferred significance and mental health among adolescents. Research in Community and Mental Health, 1, 163-182

Rosenthal, G. T., Folse, E. J., Alleman, N. W., Boudreaux, D., Soper, B., & Von Bergen, C. (2000). The one-to-one survey: Traditional versus non-traditional student satisfaction with professors during one-to-one contacts. College Student Journal, 34(2), 315

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Schlossberg, N. K., Lassalle, A. D., & Golec, R. R. (1990). The Mattering Scales for Adult Students in Postsecondary Education.

Schwitzer, A. M., Griffin, O. T., Ancis, J. R., & Thomas, C. R. (1999). Social adjustment experiences of African American college students. Journal of Counseling & Development, 77(2), 189–197.

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