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How Higher Ed Models are Evolving to Support Nontraditional Learners

By Amy Guterman May 12, 2021

While the definition of a “nontraditional student” varies, we can agree that the number of students who fit into this broad category is on the rise. In fact, students described as “nontraditional,” such as adult learners, parents, and individuals working full-time, now outnumber “traditional” students who enter higher education directly after high school.

With student backgrounds and circumstances varying immensely, education institutions are tasked with finding new ways to support holistic student success and advance equity in education

Through Impact Labs, Community Fellows from across sectors are working to co-design a solution to support Black and Latinx learners on nontraditional pathways as they navigate postsecondary education and move into the workforce. Dr. Glenda Evans, assistant professor and chair of the department of business administration at Hampton University, and Dr. Beatriz Joseph, vice chancellor of student success at Dallas College, are two of the Community Fellows participating in the Impact Lab. Drawing on their backgrounds working with learners, they are ideating on a solution to help foster supportive and inclusive experiences for students getting to and through their first year of postsecondary education. 

To learn more about how unconventional education models can support underrepresented minorities and nontraditional learners, we asked Dr. Evans and Dr. Joseph to share how their institutions are evolving to help their diverse communities prepare for the workforce.

Man working
A nontraditional learner in Dallas College’s mechatronics apprenticeship program.

Dallas College: Providing Holistic Support

At Dallas College, meeting students where they are means helping them access food, shelter, and other basic needs that are prerequisites to academic success.

“Without addressing these needs up front, we cannot begin to transform lives and communities through higher education, which is the credo that has guided our college for the last several decades and continues to light our way forward,” said Dr. Joseph. 

With nearly one third of Dallas College students living below the poverty level and many holding more than one job while in school, Dallas College recognizes that offering wrap-around services to meet students’ basic needs often makes the difference between a degree completed and a dream deferred.

Dallas College and its seven campuses have partnered with community organizations to bring much-needed services to students, such as food bank access and free transit cards that allow many of their students to travel safely to class on a full stomach. During the pandemic, Dallas College offered mental health assistance, food pantries, housing assistance via emergency aid funding, and access to hotspots and laptops for students to participate in distance learning.

Pantry with canned food
One of the food pantries offered to students at Dallas College.

The college is also focused on increasing the size and productivity of the workforce by diversifying the portfolio of technical and job training programs offered. Nearly 50 apprenticeship programs are offered today in a variety of fields from healthcare and automotive manufacturing to construction science. Through the college’s no-cost WorkReadyU program, 10,000 students each year learn hands-on skills in growing professions like healthcare, logistics, and manufacturing to meet the latest regional workforce needs and find meaningful careers that align with their interests. 

“Dallas College is making informed investments in services that remove obstacles for our students and in programs that connect strategically to the needs of employers, ultimately resulting in jobs for our graduates,” says Dr. Joseph. “Because community colleges will play an increasingly important role in the economic vitality of our region and beyond, Dallas College will continue to address needs that may have been historically overlooked, so we can ensure our students are equipped for success.”

Hampton University: “Our Model is No Wrong Doors”

“Education is the key to opportunity. But it doesn’t always have to be textbook education. At Virginia Workforce Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center at Hampton University, our model is ‘no wrong doors’,” said Dr. Evans. 

For Hampton University, this means providing learners with the skills and resources needed to succeed in today’s economy, with some doors leading to traditional classroom learning and others leading to nontraditional education opportunities.

In September 2020, the U.S. Department of Education awarded Hampton University a grant to establish the Virginia Workforce Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center (VWIEC), a statewide small business incubator project. VWIEC expands the capability and capacity of Virginia’s current and aspiring entrepreneurs to aid with economic recovery in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

To break down the barriers to entrepreneurship for many individuals, particularly for those from underrepresented communities, VWIEC provides free courses, mentors, and certifications. In addition, the program also focuses on soft skills to provide people new to entrepreneurial environments with the context they need to succeed.

VWIEC also partners closely with the state of Virginia’s Workforce Board. By meeting weekly with the Workforce Board, Dr. Evans and her colleague, Dr. Kermit Crawford, are able to tap into resources across the state, identify gaps, and create a directory that people can access to get more resources. “Our mission is to fill gaps, rather than duplicating,” Dr. Evans said.

Over the next three years, VWIEC aims to support 3,000 people across Virginia who were impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, providing education, credentials, and resources to pursue their entrepreneurial goals.

Technology to Support Evolving Education Models

As institutions rethink their models to meet the holistic needs of their communities and prepare learners for a changing workforce, technology can play an important role in both institution and learner success. Technology solutions like Education Cloud can help institutions meet the evolving needs of campus communities and support holistic wellbeing for their students and staff. 

Register for Education Summit on June 16 to join the conversation on driving equity in education together.

About the Authors

Amy Guterman, Director for Impact Labs
Amy Guterman, Director for Impact Labs
Director for Impact Labs

Amy believes in the power of human-centered design and technology to create positive change in the world. Her career has centered on using design thinking for social impact, tackling challenges that range from reducing violence in Chicago to improving health information systems in low to moderate income countries. Her work has been featured in publications such as FastCo, Wired, and Design Observer and recognized internationally by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


Dr. Beatriz Joseph, Vice Chancellor of Student Success, Dallas College   Dallas College logo
Dr. Beatriz Joseph
Vice Chancellor of Student Success, Dallas College

Beatriz is the Vice Chancellor of Student Success for Dallas College. She has most recently served as the 10th president of Mountain View College. With more than 25 years of higher education experience, her role as a champion for accessible and affordable education for a diverse student population is unparalleled.


Dr. Glenda Evans, Assistant Professor & Chair of the Department of Business Administration, Hampton University   Dallas College logo
Dr. Glenda Evans
Assistant Professor & Chair of the Department of Business Administration, Hampton University

Glenda serves as Chair of the Department of Business Administration in the School of Business at Hampton University. She’s been at Hampton University for seven years following a career as an accountant for 15 years prior. She’s served in the public, private, and government sectors.