Who’s a ‘traditional’ student anyway?

Each story in our Dear Tech Companies series focuses on issues in the tech space and provides strategies and solutions to companies looking to invest in meaningful solutions that will drive impactful industry change and make the industry more accessible to Black, Latina, and Native American women.

This is the second installment of our newest series — “Dear Tech Companies: What’s a ‘traditional’ student anyway’?’ Read part I here.

What’s common between a military service member coming off active duty, a single parent, and a former full-time professional laid off during the pandemic?

Hint: They’re students returning to college, and are a growing part of America’s classrooms today.

In our last Dear Tech Companies piece, we told you that the ‘typical’ college student has changed. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), 74% of undergraduates share at least one of the characteristics typically considered non-traditional, including being a returning student, experiencing financial constraints, or being a GED recipient.

We also told you that despite these students forming a majority of undergraduates in our country today, we don’t have the most reliable data to fully understand their range of experiences yet. The data we use to understand enrollment and graduation trends among non-traditional students is relatively new, not yet disaggregated by race and gender, and still pools a large group of students together who could be caregivers, veterans, full-time professionals, or transferring from community colleges to 4-year institutions.

This is especially important for us at Reboot, when Black, Latina, and Native American students are more likely to care for dependents, and community colleges serve around 40% of the country’s undergraduates, a large number of whom are Black and Latino.

Why should this matter to tech companies? In the next few years, your offices will be filled with graduates who have taken different, unique pathways into the workforce. By eliminating the idea of the traditional student and digging deeper to understand the range of different experiences ‘non-traditional students’ have, you can ensure you’re recruiting from a diverse pool of talent and investing in retaining these professionals by supporting their growth. Part of that work means understanding what these students need today, and how you are uniquely positioned to help.

Curious where to start? Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. Get specific — early.

You may think that ‘non-traditional’ is a specific word that captures the diversity of experiences students have — but it’s not. It cannot act as an umbrella term that accounts for parents returning to school after a hiatus, veterans, a tech professional expanding their skills while pursuing a full time job, and students with dependents.

We’ve talked to you all before about how lumping groups together as a monolith leads to missing key insights about particular communities and the challenges and opportunities they face. Being specific and intentional while recognizing who the students are enables tech companies to design programs or initiatives to accommodate their unique experiences.

2. Let the data lead the way.

Understanding who you’re reaching is going to impact how you tailor support. Schools can — and often do — create accessible educational experiences by recognizing that students could require available childcare and resources if they’re parents or one-on-one face time with instructors if they’re returning to school after some years.

Those distinctions tend to blur when these graduates enter the workforce. By not assuming what your interns or employees need and understanding who they are, you can support them to succeed in their programs and jobs. For instance, an internship might have to accommodate competitive wages for caregivers and single-parents, a stipend to offset commuting costs, and tailored tools to provide accessible on-ramps into the workforce.

One size never fits all. Where possible, be clear about what single parents, caregivers, or veterans may need, and whether your organization is currently poised to support those specific students. By using disaggregated data to inform your program design, you can tailor solutions to fit each student, and then do it at scale.

3. Stay nimble.

Investment without adaptability usually has little impact. Most ‘non-traditional’ students have diverse entry points into tech. These can and will change over time, often in response to broader social and economic trends. For instance, students returning to school in the next few years might require more academic coaching due to the widely documented learning loss during the pandemic. Similarly, with skills-based hiring taking precedence over degree requirements, students may prefer workforce development programs over advice for pursuing further education.

Consistently monitoring who’s entering your doors can help you plan for the long run and ensure students feel prepared for the workforce that awaits them.

The term ‘non-traditional student’ shouldn’t be an easy shorthand or a catchall, but an invitation to expand and challenge our perception of who these students (and future professionals) are and how we can best meet their needs. Ensuring that the student coming off active duty, the single parent, and the former professional can thrive in the classroom and in your workforce requires more than just a language change — it relies on analysis, accessibility, and adaptability.

In our third and final installment in the series, we will explore why language changes are not the end game to your diversity goals, but crucial starting points to reflect deeper investments and the work you’re doing to create a more inclusive industry.

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Reboot Representation

Reboot Representation

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A coalition of tech companies committed to doubling the number of Black, Latina, and Native American women receiving computing degrees by 2025.