Is the Nontraditional Path to a Degree Becoming the Traditional One?

Is the Nontraditional Path to a Degree Becoming the Traditional One?

GS Pioneers New Programs and Pathways for Increasing Numbers of "Nontraditional Students"

By Alexander Gelfand

Ask Luis Felipe Morgado '12 about life as a student at Columbia, and he sounds much like any other undergraduate: enthusiastic, slightly overwhelmed,  and  already  thinking about life after graduation. An economics and math major, Morgado says confidently, "I'll probably try to work for two or three years in finance, and after that I want to go to grad school."

It's only when you ask Morgado about his past, and the path he took to Columbia, that the conversation takes an unusual turn. "I was born and raised in Brazil, and I attended a French secondary school there," Morgado says, his speech inflected with the mildest of Brazilian accents. "I knew about Columbia, but it wasn't really in my college plans." After graduating from the Lycée Moliere in Rio de Janeiro, Morgado applied to lnstitut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris, or Sciences Po, one of France's renowned grandes écoles, the handful of universities that have traditionally trained  the  country's  political  and  cultural elite. Morgado spent two years at the school's "Euro-Latin American" campus in Poitiers, where a select group of 200 undergraduates from 25 different countries take the Sciences Po interdisciplinary curriculum as well as courses in French, English, Spanish, and Portuguese.

In his sophomore year, Morgado heard about the new Dual BA Program Between Columbia University and Sciences Po, in which students from around the world begin their college education in France and conclude it in New York at the School of General Studies, completing each school's undergraduate curriculum. The program gives both Columbia and Sciences Po an infusion of international attitudes and perspectives, while students like Morgado receive two bachelor's degrees from two world-class universities in four years--though thanks to their full integration into the life of the University, few of their fellow Columbia students will ever realize that they are part of a unique program pioneered by GS. "Most people don't even know I'm in GS," says Morgado. "There's absolutely no difference between what students at GS take, and what students from other colleges at Columbia take."

There is a difference however, between the range of innovative programs and the diversity of students that one finds at Columbia and what one finds at other Ivy League institutions, a difference driven in large part by GS. Decades before it began its dual BA program with Sciences Po, GS pioneered a joint-degree program in conjunction with List College, the undergraduate college of The Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), the leading institution of higher education in Judaism's Conservative movement. One year later, in 1955, GS established the Postbaccalaureate Premedical Program, the oldest and largest program of its kind in the United States. And now, in keeping with President Lee Bollinger's commitment to placing Columbia at the forefront of global education, GS seeks to establish relationships with leading universities from Brazil to Hong Kong.

While all of that might seem to have little to do with GS's long-established mission of serving returning and nontraditional students, it is, in fact, a natural outgrowth of the college's history and purpose. Columbia is the only Ivy League university with a freestanding college that fully integrates such students into the undergraduate classroom. Organized in 1947 as an undergraduate college that catered to Gls returning from World War II, GS has subsequently evolved into an institution that offers people with sufficient talent and drive--whether fresh out of high school, fresh out of the military, or fresh out of their first or second career the opportunity to take a nontraditional path to a traditional liberal arts degree. GS is the only place where nontraditional students can receive all the benefits of a classic Ivy League education, accompanied by the kind of flexibility and innovation they both need and desire.

There is serendipity here: a college that was founded to serve nontraditional students has become a proving ground for nontraditional approaches to the traditional Ivy League education. But if there is serendipity in that transformation, there is also great timeliness and considerable opportunity, for a convergence of factors has made both the education of nontraditional students, and nontraditional approaches to higher education, very much of the moment.

Reasonable people disagree over the relative proportions of traditional and nontraditional students currently enrolled in American colleges and universities, if only because reasonable people also disagree over precisely what the terms "traditional" and "nontraditional" ought to mean. Nonetheless, everyone agrees that the number of nontraditional students is larger than ever before. And it is growing rapidly.

According to Carole Aslanian, senior vice president of Education Dynamics, a consulting firm that provides research and marketing services to colleges and universities, if one takes a strictly age-based approach and defines a "nontraditional" student as someone over the age of 25, then roughly 50 percent of all enrollments qualify. Yet one can also use the criteria employed by the federal Deparnnent of Education. It defines as "traditional" those students aged 18 to 24 who live on campus and attend classes full time, and as "nontraditional" everyone else—including those who fall within the 18-24 age group yet also have jobs or dependents or attend classes part time. Then the picture changes dramatically; by that reckoning, only 27 percent of all undergraduates in this country qualify as traditional, while the remaining 73 percent are nontradiltional.

In other words, according to the federal governrnent, nontraditional students now outnumber their traditional counterparts, a situation that Debra Saunders-White, deputy assistant for higher education programs at the DOE, believes has much to do with money. "The rising cost of college tuition has increased the likelihood that what we have always called the 'traditional student' would become the 'nontraditional student,' Saunders-White says. "Fundamentally, you've got a group of students who are trying to deal with a dynamic of what I would call 'just living."' Or as Frederick Hess, dlirector of education policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, puts it: "The assumption that you graduate [from high school] in June, you have your summer to lifeguard, and then you show up on campus in September" now holds true for only "a sliver of students." The rest look far more like those who have historically come to GS: students who have several years of real-world experience under their belts and an armload of competing obligations.

In addition, Aslanian says, "more and more traditional students are behaving Like adults": They want more options and greater flexibility from their educational institutions, along with innovative programs that can help them gain purchase in a highly competitive global landscape. The more closely one looks at the once clear-cut categories of traditional versus nontraditional students, suggests Susan Fuhrman, president of Teachers College, the more one realizes that "the lines are being blurred." This is especially so since the term "nontraditional student" evolved directly out of what now looks like an outmoded focus on youth in American higher education. "It's been so traditionally organized around the 18-year-old who comes to college directly out of high school that you need some time to talk about anybody who comes in anotller way," says Claude Steele, former provost of Columbia and now dean of the school of education at Stanford University.

The trend toward increasing numbers of nontraditional students, and of traditional students with nontraditional tendencies, has been gathering steam for some time. According to Saunders-White, public institutions and the federal government have responded in recent years by offering more support and resources for nontraditional undergraduates, whom they have begun to regard as but one more component in a diverse student population. "Many institutions understand that the discourse in the classroom can be enhanced by multiple voices from different backgrounds," says Saunders-White, regardless of whether those voices belong to underserved minorities or to older students with richer life experiences and more complex needs than their traditional counterparts.

Yet the country's most selective private institutions have been notably slow to meet the challenge posed by this demographic and cultural shift. Most continue to maintain what Aslanian describes as a "segregated system," in which anyone who does not fit the full-time, fresh-out-of-high-school profile is shunted into a separate and often unequal program of night classes taught by adjunct faculty. The assumption underlying such programs, says Peter Awn, dean of the School of General Studies, is that "if you put an 18-year-old and a 25-year-old in the same classroom, something terrible will happen"; this, despite a study that Aslanian conducted for the College Board some years ago ("Adults in the Classroom") that found that adults make better students overall--a finding that would not surprise most Columbia faculty who have encountered GS students. "They often bring a special hunger for learning," Andrew Delbanco, Julian Clarence Levi Professor in the Humanities and chair of the American Studies Department, wrote in an e-mail, "and a seriousness of purpose intensified by the awareness that education is a privilege."

The simple fact that GS fully integrates such a large number of nontraditional students into the undergraduate curriculum (roughly 1,500 at last count, or slightly more than 10 percent of the total undergraduate population of tile University) is enough to make Columbia unique among selective private institutions. "It's an outlier," says Hess. Saunders-White, at the DOE, concurs. "It's extraordinary," she says, "that an institution like Columbia is so committed to finding strategies to help nontraditional students obtain a degree."

The failure of its peer institutions to embrace nontraditional students in similar fashion represents both a paradox and a weakness. As Awn notes, no institution of higher learning can claim a commitment to diversity while excluding the majority of aspiring college graduates from its midst-a majority that, one might argue, has me same right to a top-flight education as any other group. "It's incredibly unfair to say that you age out of the private school system," Awn says. Nor, he adds, can any college or university claim to recruit the nation's best students while simultaneously restricting its efforts to less than a third of the total pool, a practice that he describes as both logically inconsistent and highly damaging. "It's a disaster for elite schools. They're becoming more irrelevant."

At Columbia, in contrast, nontraditional students are not only GS's core constituency, but they are also one of the University's greatest assets: a source of strength for the entire Columbia community and a spur to innovation.

Having spent the past half-century or more figuring out how to provide the most rigorous liberal education possible to military veterans, working professionals, and the parents of small children—students who are forced to deal, in Saunders-White's memorable phrase, with "a dynamic of 'just living"'—GS is uniquely equipped to see and exploit opportunities that other colleges might miss, to attract students whom they might overlook, and to integrate them into the life of the University to the benefit of all. These are students like Barbara Robey '11, who came to GS to fulfill her passion for biology and medicine—one she had put on hold while raising a family and holding down a job as a Manager of Systems Administration for 20 years. Or there's supermodel Sara Ziff '11, who brought her real life experience on the runway for top designers to her courses in political science. At GS, courses on labor movements and organizing gave Ziff a new lens through which to view her behind-the-scenes knowledge of the often harsh modeling business, spurring her to start a fashion trade organization (See New Graduate Notes on p. 28 for more on Robey, Ziff, and other recent GS graduates).

And, of course, consider Luis Morgado, a Brazilian who came to New York only after having spent two years ensconced in a thoroughly international and multilingual campus at one of Europe's finest universities. The Dual BA Program that brought him to Morningside Heights is helping to fulfill President Bollinger's vision of transforming Columbia into a truly international institution not only by expanding the University's footprint abroad, but also by making the Columbia community at home more closely resemble the wider world of which it is a part. There is little doubt that Morgado's unique cultural perspective and educational experience in France will enrich the academic experience of every undergraduate with whom he comes into contact, both in and out of class. Yet Morgado, who attended a French secondary school in a country famous for its ethnic and racial diversity, seems most impressed by the inclusive nature of Columbia. He says, "The student body is really diverse, and it's not just a question of ethnicity; it's also a question of age and of different backgrounds, especially among GS sntdents. There's probably a lot more diversity at Columbia than there is in any school in Brazil," and he adds, "It really gives you a new perspective on a lot of issues, and it's great for class discussions."

Stanford's Claude Steele agrees. He paints a scenario—typical in GS—of a classroom discussing a classic piece of literature with a group of students whose accumulated life experiences allow them to share perspectives that would otherwise be unavailable to their younger counterparts. "Everyone participating in the discussion is going to benefit from that," he says. "It adds this great dimension of breadth and depth to the undergraduate experience that's hard to get at any other place."

GS students and alumni tend to be highly aware of the exceptional nature of the academic environment at Columbia, and they often talk about the contribution their fellow students make to the level of intellectual discourse on campus. "We saw people who had these remarkable life stories, people who had totally different outlooks on what we were reading," says Yoni Grassman-Bader ('11 GS-JTS), who sat alongside many GS students while earning two bachelor's degrees--one in history, one in the Hebrew Bible and its interpretation--through the Joint Program. Like Morgado, Grassman-Bader, who currently works at a synagogue in Manhattan and plans to attend Duke Law School, was a traditional student by virtue of his age when he entered college. Yet also like Morgado, the path he chose to pursue was patently nontraditional. The result was a unique, and uniquely valuable, educational experience.

For example, concurrent classes in the Hebrew Bible at JTS and in Roman history at Columbia inspired Grossman-Boder to write a paper comparing Moses and Jesus as typological figures, an idea, he says, "that would not have occurred to me had I not had that Columbia course." Similarly, his exposure at JTS to classic works of Jewish philosophy by the likes of Martin Buber informed his understanding of the material he studied back at Columbia. "It was definitely a two-way street," he says, "and a very intellectually enriching experience"-one that would not have been possible, he hastens to add, without the administrative support provided by GS. "Columbia and JTS schedules don't really line up," explains Grossman-Bodcr, who averaged seven or eight classes each semester for four years. "I often met with the deans to work it out. It was pretty intense, but they really tried to help us through the nitty-gritty of the thing."

That practical experience with me nitty-gritty of executing ambitious, and at times risky, academic ventures involving a kaleidoscopically diverse student population has made GS the ideal location from which to launch pioneering new programs, and to continue expanding the definition of what constitutes a rigorous liberal education at a top-tier university. And that, in turn, has made the school a source of dynamism and diversity for the University at large.

"It's good for everybody," says Steele, who from his present perch at Stanford's School of Education would like to see the GS model spread to colleges and universities far and wide. "It's good for the traditional student, and for whatever term we're using for the less traditional student. And it has a huge educational advantage for the larger campus."