Dear Tech Companies: What’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 first installment of our newest series — “Dear Tech Companies: What’s a ‘traditional’ student anyway?” Stay tuned for parts II and III.
Imagine the “typical” undergraduate student majoring in computing in 2022. Are you thinking of this student as about 18 years old, straight out of high school, and studying on campus full time? It’s what many know and accept the traditional student to be.
What if we told you that these characteristics no longer describe a majority of undergraduate students in the US today? That’s right — 60% of undergraduates today are non-traditional learners.
Non-traditional students come from a variety of backgrounds and experiences. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all definition — they are parents, veterans, returning students, commuters, and full-time employees. They could be enrolled at community colleges, transferring to bachelor’s degree-granting institutions, or attending school only part-time or fully online.
Given that staggering number, it’s time for us to rethink what the traditional student actually looks like in the public image. Should we keep saying “non-traditional” when these students actually make up the majority of undergraduates?
This specificity matters to us at Reboot for a number of reasons. And it should matter to tech companies too.
First, this framing positions a subset of student experiences as the default. Not only is this language exclusionary, it’s also at odds with the reality of colleges in our country today. This means that if we only focus on expanding diversity and equity through “traditional” four-year college pathways for 18–22 year old students, our interventions won’t actually be inclusive.
We need to dig deeper and ask questions about the types of institutions and resources students are accessing: Do the students live on or off campus? Do they commute to school after long hours of work? Are they returning to school after coming off active military duty? Are they transferring from community college? Are they enrolled full- or part-time? Will they take consecutive terms, or only be enrolled for part of the year? Are they supporting their parents, partners, or children while enrolled?
These questions matter because adult learners, low-income students, and students of color require tailored support based on their needs, but are often concentrated in colleges and universities that spend less per student than better-resourced institutions. The gaps don’t end there — around 49% of adult learners seeking degrees are either no longer enrolled or do not graduate within six years of enrollment. In a stratified higher education landscape, it’s clear that our “traditional” notions of college are not effectively serving a growing cohort of current and future students.
Second, by positioning first-time, full-time undergraduates as the “traditional” student, we’re continuing to underinvest in systems that shed more light on non-traditional students’ educational attainment. Until about six years ago, federal college graduation statistics only included first-time, full-time degree- or certificate-seeking undergraduate students. While the National Center for Education Statistics has made huge strides in helping us better understand the experiences of students at community colleges and for-profit colleges; their newer Outcome Measures data are not yet disaggregated by race and gender, and still lump together a large pool of students who could be parents and caregivers, student veterans, full-time professionals, transferring between community colleges or to 4-year institutions. We’ve talked to you all before about how treating groups as a monolith leads to missing critical insights about the challenges particular communities face. In this case, that means we may not have the most reliable data to fully understand the whole range of experiences of 60% of undergraduates today.
Third, language is constantly evolving, and our goal is to ensure inclusivity in our actions and the way we talk about our work. That means making sure the language we’re using is clear, specific, and aligned with how communities talk about themselves. But here’s the bottom line: what needs to shift isn’t just the language companies use to talk about tech professionals and students, but the mindset companies have when it comes to hiring, retention, and career development for these students. For instance, how are companies designing summer internships for students that do not have the opportunity to relocate for 10 weeks due to care responsibilities? It can be tempting to hop on the bandwagon and adopt phrases without fully understanding why we’re shifting our frames of reference or what we’re trying to achieve.
Inclusive language isn’t a checkbox, coverup, or a courtesy — it’s crucial in centering the lived experiences of BLNA women and addressing their unique needs. And so before shifting our language, we want to ask ourselves the following questions:
Who are we talking about?
What would a language change solve?
How are we actually supporting non-traditional students’ needs?
In parts II and III, we’ll explore the questions above, and talk about ways tech companies can support tangible outcomes for these students before and after they enter the workforce. Till then, it’s crucial to remember that the “typical” college student has changed — and it’s time our mindsets did, too.