Picture of cart in supermarket overlaid by the words Does Your school feel like a supermarket? Improving persistence among nontraditional students.
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Does Your School Feel Like a Supermarket?

Keeping nontraditional students from becoming non-completers

Community colleges serve many nontraditional students and are all too familiar with the host of reasons they struggle to complete their degrees. External commitments, financial strain, and social isolation often combine to push nontraditional students out of the academy. There is no perfect solution to all of these problems, which bedevil enrollment managers everywhere.

When school feels like a supermarket

Mary K. Hutchens has crafted a particularly fitting metaphor for nontraditional students’ college experience. For nontraditional students, going to college is like a trip to the supermarket. They take a little time out of their day to get what they need and leave as soon as they have it. These means that their experience of campus is relatively limited, often restricted to the classroom, and that they are unlikely to have the full educational experience.

This is more significant to completion than it might seem at first glance. Integrating into the campus community improves students’ access to all available resources. When students feel socially isolated, lack academic support, or miss out on available financial aid, they are far more likely to drop out. That’s why improving nontraditional student persistence means making campus feel less like a supermarket.

Making your campus seem like an office

Nontraditional students often see college as one piece of their broader career efforts. When they arrive on campus, they should feel supported in that ambition. That means they should feel like campus is a productive place to work. They should be able to park conveniently, find quiet places to study, and see a clear connection between the work they do in the classroom and their career goals.

When these students are at school, it becomes like a second office to them. A college credential is an important career step that can help people earn more, become more employable, and build a more stable future. Nontraditional students return to school because they realize this, and when the campus environment reinforces that message it fosters a sense of belonging.

Facilitate broader campus engagement

Nontraditional students are balancing a heavy load of school and life commitments. Since they fit classes in between their other responsibilities, they are unlikely to participate in supplementary activities. That means they miss out on study sessions, campus events, and extra learning opportunities.

Of course, it’s important to acknowledge that nontraditional students’ other responsibilities matter. Mandating that they engage with campus culture like traditional students is counterproductive. However, social connections between students and the campus community at large has been shown to have a positive impact on persistence (Kerka, 1995). Finding ways to include nontraditional students in campus life may improve retention rates.

Provide a place to rest and store belongings

Nontraditional students may arrive on campus carrying whatever they will need for several classes. Unlike traditional students, who can pick up textbooks or a snack from their dorm rooms, nontraditional students have to keep all of their possessions at hand. Not having anywhere to heat up a lunch, hang a coat, or leave their backpack may contribute to nontraditional students’ sense of alienation.

A study lounge or break room, perhaps with lockers or storage areas, gives nontraditional students a defined area on campus. That way if they have a few hours between classes they have somewhere to go, just like residential students. Small changes like this can make a big difference to their sense of belonging.

Include student families in the educational experience

Nontraditional students often have families, and young dependents. A family can be an important source of support and encouragement when school proves difficult. However, guilt over spending time away from their families, or over adding to their families’ financial burdens, can lead nontraditional students to quit.

It’s important to make student families a part of the college experience as well. Community colleges can celebrate and include families in many ways, from end of the year ceremonies to hosting a Halloween trick-or-treat event for students’ children. This can significantly reduce the stress students feel about spending time away from home to complete their degrees.

Community colleges should be practical and personal

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with coming to campus for only a few hours each week, it’s important to make nontraditional students feel like they belong. A campus is a place to rest, to socialize, and to do important work. Nontraditional students deserve to feel this way just as much as traditional ones. By making schools feel less like a supermarket, community colleges can help nontraditional students succeed.


Hutchens K. Mary. “Nontraditional Students and Student Persistence.” ed. Don Hossler and Bob Bontrager. Handbook of Strategic Enrollment Management. vol. first edition, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, p 333-350

Kerka, S. (1995). Adult Lerner Retention Revisited. ERIC Digest No. 166. Columbus, OH: ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult Career and Vocational Education.