Does Technology—and Education—Move Faster Than Culture?

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While serving students as an advisor for more than eight years at Ashford University, Shawn Mangerino helped students from all walks of life pursue their educational goals by providing them with the right tools and support. In his first “Confession,” Shawn tackled the question many online institutions face: does this school really care? He also confronted five common reasons students might not complete their degree. Now Shawn takes on the rapidly changing influence of technology on education, and what it means for non-traditional students.


We live in an age in which students can participate in school from their phones, while on a bus, on a lunch break, or anywhere else you can dream up. But despite the emerging accessibility in higher education, non-traditional students are still held to traditional standards—and I don’t mean the grades they’re earning.

Does the World Understand Online Education?

I attended a conference in 2016 for an emerging data analytics platform that was crafted to refine student retention practices and understanding. I attended on behalf of an online university, and I was surrounded by movers and shakers from traditional schools.

It was an intimidating experience. Education professionals from the traditional landscape seemed to know little about the online environment and student population. They seemed caught off-guard by the capabilities of online schools—and even skeptical.

I’ve long believed that students might struggle because of unrealistic expectations they place on themselves or because of guilt they feel due to past failures. There’s another side to the story though, and it has to deal with how our culture can make us feel as non-traditional learners.

Measuring Success in Education

According to the Education Advisory Board (EAB), 59% of students don’t complete their degree within four years. This statistic is highly relevant to traditional schools in which students tend to focus primarily on their education and, when compared to non-traditional students, are less likely to have families, careers, and other obligations that would limit their success in a traditional setting.

While I find tremendous value in the EAB’s findings, there is something inherently wrong with applying traditional standards to non-traditional learners.

What It Means To Be “Non-Traditional”

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, being “non-traditional” is not just about age, and family and work obligations, but also includes other variables such as race and gender. In the very definition, we can see how online programs are making education accessible to students who, traditionally, didn’t have access to college.

The problem here is that the way we measure educational success needs to evolve as well. Going back to the EAB’s statistic on four-year completion rate, applying this standard to non-traditional students ignores the fact that, as a population, non-traditional students are a deviation from the traditional four-year plan. If anything, online schools like Ashford University are making it possible for students who may have started at a traditional school to transfer their credits and finish what they started.

Traditional Metrics and Non-Traditional Students

How we measure success will eventually change along with the higher education landscape. One lingering problem, however, is the effect that these traditional metrics can have on the students they measure. Going back to my work conference, I felt intimated by a landscape that didn’t yet understand what I represented and what I had to offer. This cultural stigma is exactly what many non-traditional students still face today.

Consider this post a reminder to non-traditional learners that you’re part of a major cultural shift. While this may feel lonely at times, it may not be long before the current non-traditional student becomes the new norm—and the culture will follow.



Written by Shawn Mangerino, Lead Student Success Coordinator.

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This program requires you to be a current licensed registered nurse. Please check out other programs to reach your education goals such as the BA in Health and Wellness.