By Michael Schoch, LEC Writing Specialist
Most MCNY students are adult learners who commute to school, work jobs, and raise families—characteristics that label them “non-traditional” college students. But, as Madeline St. Amour observes in a recent article in Inside Higher Ed, this demographic will soon represent the majority of higher education students.
This is potentially good news, suggesting that the opportunities of a college education are opening to a wider swath of the population, particularly one that’s getting more diverse, in terms of age, economic stats, race, and academic needs. But it doesn’t come without its share of pitfalls.
St. Amour argues that some colleges are having a difficult time addressing the needs of this growing student population, one that Patricia McGuire of Trinity Washington University calls “post-traditional students.” Specifically, institutions need to address what Anthony Abraham Jack, an assistant professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, calls the “hidden culture” of academia.
The Hidden Culture of Academia
The hidden culture of college refers to the many expectations, norms, and concepts that are common to college campuses. Terms like office hours, for example, are familiar to faculty members but are misunderstood by many post-traditional students as referring to a time when professors are not available to meet with students.
Similarly, students may not have an accurate sense of how many textbooks they will need to buy, or how long they will need to spend studying and working on assignments. Students who don’t work in offices and those who work in fast–paced environments may not be attuned to academic email etiquette. Students who have classes immediately after work may not initially realize how much time transportation to and from school will take or how difficult it will be to stay awake.
When post-traditional students encounter these hidden cultures, they may look to their professors for guidance and clarification. But faculty who took the “traditional” route after high school, attending a residential undergraduate program and, later, a graduate school may find it difficult to describe these deeply familiar expectations to post-traditional students who have been away from school for years or decades.
New Ways of Learning at MCNY
The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted every student’s education, regardless of age or institution. The coming semesters will be new for everyone involved, but the academic culture will not fade away.
Since the end of the spring semester, MCNY students have adapted to new software like Zoom and deepened their understanding of slightly more familiar software like Microsoft Outlook, OneDrive, and Moodle. But understanding can only go so far.
Students are participating in distance and hybrid courses while watching their children, tending to relatives, and cooking meals. In the summer months, some students are attempting to stay focused despite a lack of air conditioning or cold water. Reliable Wi–Fi has been an issue as well. These are all factors that affect students’ abilities to learn and “comply” with college culture.
Self-Directed Learning at MCNY
Traditional college culture expects that students’ personal life turns off when they walk through the institution’s door. Staff, faculty, and students at MCNY have long known that this isn’t a realistic portrait of higher education in the twenty-first century. We have worked together to create an environment that is flexible yet challenging—which is what Patricia McGuire calls “compassionate rigor.”
MCNY’s emphasis on self-directed learning allows students to choose the focus of their projects and research to reflect the reality that an education is as unique as the individual receiving it. In the LEC, we support that vision for academia by helping students learn how to learn, so that they build skills to succeed in the classroom and beyond.
MCNY Stays Ahead of the Curve
In this sense, MCNY has always been ahead of the changing tides of higher ed. But it’s still worthwhile to examine our own hidden culture and think about how we can demystify it to incoming students.
Between the pandemic and remote learning, it is likely that there are more shifts to come in higher ed, some of which no expert or scholar will be able to predict. The only way to prepare will be to continue making our school, curriculum, and culture as compassionate, rigorous, and transparent as possible.