Mental Health and Post-traditional Learners

By Louis Soares

April 22, 2019

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By Gail Bruce-Sanford and Louis Soares

This post is the latest in a series on college student mental health and well-being. 

Ellen is married with three children. After the last of her kids was out of diapers, she enrolled at the local community college to earn an associate of arts in business administration and help contribute to her family’s income. She took classes while her children were at school, and her husband worked the third shift at a factory 50 miles from their rural home. She worked hard to earn As in her coursework while balancing family obligations, but she constantly battled depression and anxiety and consistently felt out of place. This struggle impacted her coursework, family, and eventually, her job prospects.

The National Center for Education Statistics projected that in 2018 12.3 million college and university students would be under the age of 25 and 7.6 million would be 25 years and older. Of the almost 20 million students enrolled in college, almost 40 percent would be post-traditional learners.

This shift in demographics, coupled with the increased attention to student mental health, begs the question—how many students like Ellen are struggling on our campuses? Do post-traditional learners have unique mental health needs while they are enrolled in college? And if the answer is yes, how should colleges and universities respond?

Post-traditional learners: What are their challenges?

Post-traditional learners—also known as nontraditional undergraduates, adult students, working learners, or twenty-first-century students—are students who are over 25, work full time, are financially independent, or are connected with the military. A recent ACE study found that in 2011–12, 70 percent of post-traditional learners were employed while enrolled in college; 48 percent had dependents and 26 percent were single parents; and only 2 percent lived on campus. Nine percent of post-traditional learners were connected with the military.

Though poised and ready to succeed, these students have unique challenges. Some are returning to college after decades of working or raising a family, which can be daunting. College can be quite an adjustment as they get used to being a student again. They tend to see themselves as more serious and focused than traditional-age students and may struggle to relate to them. Additionally, some post-traditional learners may be older than their professors or instructors. These students may also worry about being behind the curve with technology—especially when they look at the 18-year-old sitting next to them, who seems so technologically adept.

Knox College, Galesburg, Illinois


Are post-traditional learners more prone to mental health challenges than the traditional 18- to 24-year-old college student?

When post-traditional students arrive on campus, their identity as a learner, life roles, experience, and knowledge come face-to-face with a new and often unfamiliar environment. The way these characteristics influence students’ experiences varies based on their sense of agency as a learner; how they reconcile their roles as a student, worker, family member, and community citizen; their worldview and beliefs; and the way they derive meaning in the classroom based on their life and work experience. It is important to understand if—and when—these potential clashes rise to the level of concern.

Although the mental health of post-traditional learners remains an area for further exploration, there are a few studies that compare the challenges of traditional and post-traditional students.

A recent study in the Journal of American College Health looked at the differences in life stress, anxiety, depression, and alcohol use of traditional and post-traditional learners. Nontraditional students scored significantly higher on life stress, anxiety, and depression than traditional students. There was no difference on alcohol usage. Simply put, post-traditional students often find the stresses of college to be significant, and some experience diminished support as they see themselves as more isolated.

Another study evaluated the role that a sense of belonging and acceptance have in the college experience of any student. Post-traditional students are not able to consistently seek out the same sources of support as traditional students due to the competing demands of a full-time job, family obligations, and school. As a result, they can be more prone to anxiety and depressive episodes fueled by a sense of hopelessness and lack of control.

What about access to mental health services?

Most four-year colleges and universities and some community colleges have counseling centers that provide free and confidential services to college students. As the research mentioned above found, some post-traditional learners are not able to use these services if they work full time and take evening classes, especially if they have jobs with inflexible leave policies. Wait-lists for these services further complicate access and availability. Some—perhaps many—post-traditional students do not have adequate health insurance coverage for mental health care available through private agencies or off-campus providers.

Off campus, most states have boosted services for mental health. However, there are still shortfalls in systems that are often overloaded with demands and long wait-lists. This could be a deterrent for those who are seeking help and need prompt interventions. Mental Health America’s 2018 Access to Care Ranking gives an overview of access to mental health care within each state, measuring access to insurance and treatment, quality and cost of insurance, access to special education, and workforce availability. Lack of access can be a problem for some post-traditional students, especially in Texas, South Carolina, and Mississippi.

How can we help with the unique mental health needs of post-traditional learners?

It is important that post-traditional learners feel supported by and connected to campus resources. These students are often expected to adjust their own lives and schedules to campus life and services. But it is equally important that campus administrators make adjustments in campus services and culture to accommodate this growing group of students and their unique needs.

The following suggestions may help campuses to address post-traditional learners’ mental health:

  • Do not assume that because post-traditional learners are adults that they have the agency to seek help for mental health or recognize when they need it.
  • Listen carefully to post-traditional learners’ needs and struggles and validate their concerns as they juggle multiple roles and responsibilities outside of being a student.
  • Consider modifying hours of services and programs to cater to the evening and weekend times that post-traditional learners are on campus.
  • Use your on-campus counseling centers, CARE team, or behavioral intervention teams to follow up with students in need of services.
  • Invite counseling center staff to provide consultative meetings or trainings for faculty and staff who interact with post-traditional students on identifying and intervening in high-risk cases or dealing with a student resistant to services.
  • If you have a counseling center, consider providing support groups for post-traditional students, which can help them develop a better sense of belonging and reduce their stress levels.
  • Offer a variety of workshops at varying times on topics related to adult learners, such as managing stress, parenting, sharpening study skills, and succeeding in college while balancing multiple responsibilities.
  • Be prepared with professional mental health resources to make referrals as needed, including to mental health crisis lines.
  • Try to avoid problem-solving for students who do not ask for it. Discuss options and allow them to make their own decisions.

Post-traditional learners are important members of our campus communities. Administrators need to consider the unique needs of this population in order to offer services that best support their success and well-being.

If you have any questions or comments about this blog post, please contact us.

About the Author

Louis Soares

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