January 2012

Role Strain and Its Impact on Nontraditional Students’ Success
By: Christopher Veney, Veronica O'Geen and Thomas F. Kowalik

A shift in the profile of higher education students has taken place: At many institutions, the “traditional” 18- to 21-year-old student cohort is no longer the majority demographic. This study explores the impact of “role strain” on the academic success of nontraditional students attending a public research university in the northeastern United States. Four roles were identified: family caregiver, employee, student, and community member. Inherent in each role is a distinct set of stressors that hinders nontraditional students’ academic success. Institutional practices, policies and programs that reduce the stress associated with nontraditional students’ conflicting roles were identified.

At many higher education institutions, there has been a shift in the prevailing student demographic. Historically, higher education has dedicated itself to meeting the academic needs of students between the ages of 18 and 22 years (Soney 2003). Yet nationwide, the demographic profile of the population is undergoing rapid change. Adults are returning to higher education at unprecedented rates. Given that nontraditional students constitute the fastest-growing segment of higher education enrollment (Wyatt 2011), it is critical that higher education institutions accommodate these learners.

Despite the rapidly growing population of older students, most postsecondary institutions under-serve them (Kasworm 2010). Disregard for this population violates the very objectives of public education. The underlying issue is one of fairness and equal access to education. Postsecondary institutions must establish policies and strategies that mitigate the effects of nontraditional students’ role strain. Promoting awareness of the distinct academic needs of nontraditional students will help ensure the future success not only of this student population but also of the U.S. economy. Recruiting and retaining nontraditional students must top the list of institutional priorities.

Institutional policy is central to the recruitment, retention and academic success of nontraditional students; it can increase an institution’s attractiveness to the adult learner population. The greater an institution’s appeal, the greater the application rate and the more competitive its admissions. Taken together, the result can be an increase in the institution’s economic return. Ralph Soney (2003) urges postsecondary institutions to adapt to the new campus climate, chart a course of action for the nontraditional student and reap the benefits of immeasurable growth. Flint (2005) describes a model for serving adult learners; his strategies relate broadly to outreach, life and career planning, financing, assessment of learning outcomes, the teaching-learning process, student support systems, technology, and strategic partnerships. If postsecondary institutions make concerted efforts to address the needs of nontraditional students, then student recruitment, retention and academic success are inevitable results.

The needs of nontraditional students stem in large part from their taking on of several roles at once; the resultant tension is “role strain.” Defined as the perceived struggle in performing role-related duties, role strain has several implications for the academic success of nontraditional students (Rowlands 2010). This research sought to distinguish nontraditional from traditional students as a means of identifying best practices in higher education that mitigate role strain.

Characteristics of nontraditional students
Research on nontraditional students typically focuses on students age 25 years and older (Kim 2002). Nontraditional students also may be characterized by any of the following:

  • delayed enrollment in college, i.e., did not enter postsecondary education in the same calendar year in which she graduated from high school;
  • attends college part time for at least part of the academic year;
  • works full time (35 hours or more per week) while enrolled;
  • is considered financially independent for the purpose of determining eligibility for financial aid;
  • has dependents other than a spouse (usually children, but sometimes others);
  • is a single parent; and
  • does not have a high school diploma or earned a GED (U.S. Department of Education 2002).

Four-year postsecondary institutions have been criticized for providing insufficient services to meet nontraditional students’ unique needs; were they to do so, they would retain these students (Keith 2007). In addition to meeting their responsibilities as learners, nontraditional students also must devote time and energy to numerous other commitments. These frequently pertain to family, employment, and the community and can limit academic success and even impede degree completion altogether (Guidos & Dooris 2008). In effect, these roles are in perpetual competition with one another, vying for the individual’s limited time, energy and resources (Giancola 2009). Because the nontraditional student juggles a number of responsibilities, she often sets aside academic priorities in order to meet more urgent demands. This conflict is a key source of stress for the nontraditional student. Regardless of institutional intentions, prevailing administrative practices at four-year institutions marginalize adult learners (Marion 2001).

Project purpose
In an effort to better understand the nontraditional students attending a public research university in the northeastern United States, this project sought to identify the roles nontraditional students fill and the array of stressors inherent within each role as the students attempt to complete their academic degrees. This initiative focused specifically on one alleged source of nontraditional student failure: role strain. Primary goals were to better understand the reasons for nontraditional students’ participation in higher education; to identify the primary factors affecting their academic success; to identify current services, programs and policies linked to those factors; and to develop or enhance practices to address role strain and thereby to increase the academic success of nontraditional students.

Several methods were utilized to identify various aspects of role strain: a review of the literature, a series of focus groups, and questionnaires. Data were collected, recorded, combined, and analyzed using content analysis. The research population included nontraditional students, staff, and faculty who themselves had been nontraditional students and whose daily work and responsibilities require extensive interaction with nontraditional students.

our distinct roles that affect the academic success of nontraditional students were identified: family caregiver, employee, community member, and student. Each role comprised an inherent yet distinct set of intertwined and competing obligations that presented as a stressor. For example, the role of ‘family caregiver’ was related variously to the stress of being a parent and/or spouse, of being involved in a long-distance relationship, of being divorced, and of being responsible for multiple family-related obligations (e.g., paying bills, procuring and preparing meals, child care, etc.). The ‘employee” role related variously to stress associated with finances, work schedules, job offers, business ownership, and employment as a consultant. Stressors related to being members of a community included responsibilities as a volunteer, coach, board member, city council member, and religious leader. The role of ‘nontraditional student’ related variously to stress associated with changes in curriculum (both individual courses and entire degree programs), numbers of credits earned, tuition, office hours, study locations, and student-faculty relationships.

This project also sought to identify practices and policies to mitigate role strain. Suggestions included

  • developing a Web page that would serve as a centralized database and reliable source of relevant information;
  • extending the institution’s hours of operation—not only for course offerings but also for administrative services provided by the registrar, financial aid, and academic advising;
  • offering night, weekend, and asynchronous distance education classes;
  • designating a physical space on campus for nontraditional students to meet and socialize;
  • providing child care;
  • designing an orientation program exclusively for nontraditional students;
  • offering peer mentoring;
  • establishing a nontraditional student organization; and
  • appointing a university-employer liaison.

Where campus policies and practices to assist nontraditional students do exist, those individuals who serve this population—and nontraditional students themselves—are largely unaware of them. If campus policies and practices that support nontraditional students were known to staff and students, they doubtless would serve to increase nontraditional students’ retention and academic success.

Institutional policies supportive of nontraditional students include awarding credit for prior learning through the College-Level Examination Program (CLEP), Defense Activity for Nontraditional Education Support (DANTES) and portfolio review; transferring credit via articulation agreements; utilizing standard academic forms for late drop, withdrawal and leaves of absence (nontraditional students often have difficulty completing such forms).

Resources to mitigate role strain also were underutilized; such resources included support staff within offices with responsibility for continuing education, transfer students, distance education, graduate education, and career development. Often overlooked were academic departments and programs committed to students’ socio-psychological development.


Nontraditional students experience significant stress while attempting to negotiate the competing demands that are the stuff of role strain. Nontraditional students’ multiple responsibilities compete for their limited time, energy, and resources. Undertaking the role of student in addition to fulfilling responsibilities related to other roles increases an already heavy burden that too often results in nontraditional students not achieving their education goals.

A number of options are available to those institutions that seek to help the growing percentage of nontraditional students manage role strain. Networking and communicating with students of similar status can be extremely important to the nontraditional student. Among the most frequently suggested forums for communication was a Web page dedicated to nontraditional students and their needs. Such a resource could serve as a clearinghouse for all things necessary to nontraditional students’ academic success, to include links to external resources such as community-based child care, local housing and utilities and car licensing. Providing centralized information about existing services and practices not only creates a more nontraditional student–friendly atmosphere but also supports the efforts of campus offices (such as student accounts, financial aid, and student affairs) that routinely assist nontraditional students. A centralized Web page to support nontraditional students might also make effective use of online social networking.

Nontraditional students have particular need of extended hours of operation for administrative offices such as the registrar, financial aid, and academic advising. If student services were to extend their hours of operation even for two to three hours just one day each month, nontraditional students would benefit. Nontraditional students also identified the need for night, weekend and asynchronous distance learning classes. These can be critical for nontraditional students because they can be the only option for them to further their education; many students simply cannot shift their responsibilities to accommodate daytime, on-campus classes. Inflexible course schedules were cited as a major contributor to nontraditional students’ low recruitment and retention rates. Weekend and night classes and alternative term lengths increase the likelihood that nontraditional students will be academically successful.

Institutions that seek to better serve nontraditional students might also consider designating a physical space on campus where such students could meet. This might be the most efficient way for nontraditional students to convene and interact.

Arranging for good-quality childcare is one of the greatest burdens for parents enrolled in higher education. If an institution were to offer childcare to nontraditional students with children, the students could meet their academic responsibilities with greater peace of mind.

Peer mentoring and advising would smooth nontraditional students’ transition into higher education. Like transfer students, nontraditional students would benefit from an orientation session customized to address their needs. Many postsecondary institutions already offer a course for first-year students; the course could be modified to meet the unique needs of the nontraditional student population. Course topics might include academic expectations, integrating the student role into other life responsibilities, coping strategies, campus resources, and time management. Such a course would strengthen nontraditional students’ connections to the institution and to its faculty.

Practical concerns such as improved parking, dining, and informational services are essential to any campus program serving nontraditional students. Easing students’ concerns even about these relatively minor issues mitigates their stress and supports their academic achievement.

An action often overlooked by traditional, residential institutions would be to identify nontraditional students and acknowledge their presence on campus. Nontraditional students participating in this study strongly recommended that a nontraditional student organization be established, sanctioned and—like other undergraduate student organizations—supported by the university. Such an organization could help secure a place for nontraditional students to meet and network, could assist with a nontraditional-student orientation and could designate a representative to participate on university governing bodies, where she could have input into the revision of administrative policies.

A final idea that emerged from this research is the appointment of a liaison between the university and nontraditional students’ employers. Such an individual could support student recruitment by helping employers identify and encourage employees to enroll in degree programs. The liaison also could educate employers as to the academic demands placed on employees pursuing college coursework and degree programs and the role strain to which student-employees are subject. Most important, the liaison would inform employers as to the benefits of supporting employees as they further their education.

Addressing the needs and interests of nontraditional students requires a multifaceted approach that is not necessarily cost prohibitive. Existing campus resources, policies and practices that support the nontraditional student population can be modified or simply publicized. By working to mitigate nontraditional students’ role strain, higher education institutions can increase student retention while strengthening relationships with the local community—to include employers. Nontraditional students who are the recipients of such support make better and more informed use of campus and community resources. In turn, they contribute more to the campus and increase their value as neighbors within the community. Supporting this fastest-growing segment of the higher education student population can only increase the success of our institutions.

Flint, T. (2005). How well are we serving our adult learners? Investigating the impact of institutions on success and retention. Adult Learning Focused Institution of Higher Education. Chicago: Council for Adult and Experiential Learning.

Guidos, M., and M. Dooris. (2008). Correlates of adult learner degree completion in a research university. Journal of Continuing Higher Education. 56(2):45–51.

Kasworm, C. E. (2010). Adult learners in a research university: Negotiating undergraduate student identity. Adult Education Quarterly. 60(2):143–60.

Keith, P. M. (2007). Barriers and nontraditional students' use of academic and social services. College Student Journal. 41(4):1123–27.

Kim, K. A. (2002). ERIC review: Exploring the meaning of 'nontraditional' at the community college. Community College Review. 30(1):74.

Rowlands, S. (2010). Nontraditional Students: The Impact of Role Strain on Their Identity. Department of Workforce Education and Development in the Graduate School. Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

Soney, R. (2003). Defining best practice in the administration of an adult learning institution. Adult Learning. 14(2):17-19, p.3. Retrieved June 6, 2011 from EBSCOhost at proxy.binghamton.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&;db=voh&AN=20961708&site=ehost-live

U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. The Condition of Education 2002. NCES 2002-025, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Wyatt, L. (2011). Nontraditional student engagement: Increasing adult student success and retention. Journal of Continuing Higher Education. 59(1):10–20.

Christopher Veney is an undergraduate McNair Scholar and sociology major at Binghamton University.

Veronica O’Geen is an advisor for continuing education at Binghamton University and a mentor at the State University of New York’s Empire State College.  She has a B.A. from Skidmore College and an M.S.W. and M.P.A. from Marywood University.

Thomas F. Kowalik is Director of Continuing Education and Outreach at Binghamton University.  He holds a B.A. in music education from Alfred University, an M.Ed. in counseling from the University of Miami, and an Ed.D. in adult education from Syracuse University.


Inside this issue
Managing Editor: Heather Zimar | Staff Writers: Christopher Just, Lisa Rosenberg | Contributing Editors: Barmak Nassirian, Cody Brumfield | Copy Editor: Kelly Stern | Design and Layout: Spark Media Group

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