A recent article on FiveThirtyEight highlighted an interesting trend within higher education: Non-traditional students, or adult learners, who make up more than 38 percent of all college students, are declining in enrollment for the first time in 40 years. Being both an adult learner and an employee at an education company that serves non-traditional students, I’ve seen the large swings in enrollment that can happen due to economic pressures.

Adult learners tend to take a shorter term view of their careers because many are in their peak wage-earning years and can’t afford to miss an opportunity for any boost in income. However, this also makes them particularly vulnerable as a population. While those who earn a degree will recoup their investment and often boost their earning power significantly, those who do not finish often have incurred significant debt with no improvement in wages. Student loan debt and default rates are climbing at unprecedented levels and, when combined with the lack of income growth and a more limited number of working years to repay student loans, the challenge only seems to grow for this non-traditional cohort.

Non-traditional students tend to be older, and are often part-time students balancing a job and college, looking for a way to better their lives and provide more opportunity for their families. They are often poorer and more susceptible to everyday challenges, like car trouble or childcare issues, derailing their progress toward completing a degree.

So what does all of this mean for Hobsons? How can we make a difference in student success for adult and non-traditional students?

Like the institutions that choose to partner with us, we commit to every enrolled student to help them succeed. We strive to understand the real people, problems, and potential solutions behind these challenges. Nearly 50 percent of Hobsons clients who use the Starfish platform are community colleges and many others are small private institutions. The “non-traditional” student is our average student. With Starfish, we connect students to campus resources and we connect caring people devoted to student success with each other. We have smart, dedicated, talented team members who are passionate about their work, and we partner with clients who are determined to help their students succeed in reaching their educational goals.

We also have our own personal stories and we aren’t afraid to share them. I’ve been in front of the nation’s largest community college to discuss my own move from community college dropout to grad school student. One of my colleagues balanced fatherhood as a teen-ager and is now on his way to earning his doctorate. And of course those who took a more “traditional” path in education also have inspiring stories to tell. Despite our different journeys, we share a belief in the power of education.

We all know that education is life-changing. But it’s not always easy. Forty percent of the enrolled student population in the country is looking to raise their quality of life but only finding success less than 15 percent of the time. We can do better.

As we move forward in this new year, I would propose that we share our passion for helping under-served populations reach their potential. Be willing to try out some non-conventional strategies. Be willing to share YOUR story as well as learn from the journeys of others. Be willing to stand up for the students who might be forgotten if they can’t find an advocate for their success. Be non-traditional.

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