Supporting Non-Traditional Students at a Departmental Level

The widening participation agenda remains at the heart of Higher Education provision in the UK, with the main focus being on admitting more students from a wider range of backgrounds to study at university. Rather less attention has been paid to how such students need to be supported when they are at university to reach levels of achievement comparable to students from more traditional university-attending demographics, who often arrive with a number of advantages. How can we level the playing field?

This blog post surveys the teaching and learning literature to explore the challenges non-traditional students face, and to consider how these might be tackled. Many of these issues are rooted in much broader social issues that require national policy level approaches; the focus here, however, is on what might be achieved at a local Departmental level.

The Context

As a first generation student myself (and now a first generation academic) I have a strong personal interest in issues of widening participation. My own background as a recipient of Free School Meals – a demographic with one of the lowest rates of academic achievement, with just 1% of FSM eligible school children getting AAA at A-Level, compared to 20% of all other state school students (Boliver et al, 2017) – means I am acutely aware of many of the challenges that can be faced by non-traditional students in getting to, and excelling at, university. Now I am established as a university lecturer, I often ask myself how can I play a part in supporting such students to achieve their potential.

The most obvious place to focus here might be on admissions – and this has been the main focus of widening participation initiatives – but this is something over which individual academics, and even individual Departments or Schools, have relatively little control at Bristol (and the Faculty of Arts already has a number of people working in posts/roles focused on WP at the admissions stage, and there is some great work happening here). What I wanted to think about then is the less well-explored issue of how we support students when they are admitted, and how we might do this at a Departmental level, where there are currently no initiatives in place.

So, the questions I set out with were:

– how do non-traditional students fare after being admitted to university?
– what challenges or barriers have a negative impact on their achievement?
– what approaches have been taken to mitigate these?
– could any of these be usefully adopted in my Department?

Literature Review

One limitation of the literature relating to these issues is that who is covered by the term ‘non-traditional’ or ‘disadvantaged’ students is very often not clearly defined: who exactly are we talking about? Billy Wong’s study of HANT students (High Achieving Non Traditional) is useful in this regard, as he specifies that ‘non-traditional’ in his study encompasses first generation, low income background, BME, mature students, and students with a disability (Wong, 2018). This is, of course, a wide range of backgrounds and the experiences and the challenges faced by each group would be quite variable – as this literature develops it will need to be sensitive to the particular challenges facing specific groups. That said, at this stage most of the literature does seem to use this ‘umbrella’ approach, so for the purposes of this post I will follow the lead of the literature and use ‘non-traditional’ to encompass these groups – but with my main focus being on first generation and low income background students.

Despite efforts made at the admissions stage of widening participation – such as the ‘contextual offers’ now adopted by Bristol (Squires 2017) – studies have shown that students from non-traditional backgrounds often struggle at university relative to their peers, with those receiving contextual offers ‘likely to face a much steeper climb when it comes to developing the disciplinary knowledge and academic study skills needed to thrive on their degree programme.’ (Boliver et al 2017a) This is likely to be a contributing factor to HESA’s findings that non-continuation rates for disadvantaged groups are higher than for other students (HESA 2017) and are in fact on the rise (Pope et al 2017). Those that do complete their degree are less likely to achieve a first or ‘good grade’ than their ‘traditional’ – white and middle class – course-mates (Wong 2018), and a report by the Social Mobility Commission has shown that working class graduates will earn less and find promotions harder to come by than privately-schooled graduates (Friedman et al 2017).

This suggests that universities need to do more than simply admit more students from non-traditional backgrounds if they are committed to social mobility and the equality agenda, as inequalities that are in place before their arrival continue to influence the achievement of students. Boliver et al suggest this is a particular concern in the current climate for more than just reasons of principle: in an environment in which universities increasingly rely on expanding student numbers to generate revenue, the area most ripe for expansion lies in attracting more students from disadvantaged backgrounds (participation rates of socio-economically advantaged groups are already at saturation point – Boliver et al 2017a). To do so, they need to be able to demonstrate that such students will benefit from their degrees as much as more traditional students do.

Why are non-traditional students more likely to drop out, less likely to get a top grade, and prone to lower pay and slower progress after graduation? Part of the issue relates to the range and level of study skills they arrive with, of course (Pope et al 2017), but much of the literature sees this as a wider issue related to what the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called ‘habitus’ and ‘social capital’ (Clarke 2017; Wong 2018). Non-traditional students arrive not only with a study skills deficit, they are also less likely to understand the unwritten ‘rules’ of academic culture (than, for instance, students whose parents have been to university) and are subsequently more likely to feel isolated and alienated by an environment that is, essentially, saturated with middle class mores and behaviours. They don’t know how to act: they don’t have the relevant ‘habitus’. Nor do they have ‘social capital’: the social contacts that can help them secure internships to progress their career.

This is sometimes referred to as ‘the hidden curriculum’ – a host of skills, habits and behaviours that are part of succeeding at university, and beyond, but which are rarely explicitly taught because most academics come from white middle class backgrounds and take them for granted (though efforts are being made at Georgetown University to teach the ‘hidden curriculum’ to first generation students – Chatelian 2018).     

Fundamentally, then, these are issues that pre-date the arrival of non-traditional students at university, but there is a growing recognition that there are steps that can be taken to mitigate these factors when they arrive. Indeed, the predecessor to the Office for Students – the Office for Fair Access – has been pushing universities to think about widening participation in relation to the whole student ‘lifecycle’, supporting non-traditional students at university, not just in getting to one, and this is likely to continue under the new OfS (Boliver et al 2017a). King’s College London has been an early respondent to this call, developing a ‘full lifecycle approach’ model (Canning 2017) and the Bristol Scholars scheme at our own university looks to do likewise (Squires 2017).

This can involve a number of related elements. Some are curriculum focused, such as embedding study skills in the curriculum early to level the playing field (Wong). Whilst it might be harder to design interventions relating to forms of ‘habitus’ and ‘social capital’ that go beyond targeting study skills, there have been steps taken in this direction, such as encouraging more inclusive teaching and learning practices and environments. One example of which might be ‘decolonising’ the curriculum so that students from non-traditional backgrounds feel better represented in the course material they study, especially in History (Atherton 2017).

Another approach, and one adopted by KCL, has been to draw on behavioural psychology literature to use a series of ‘nudges’ to help non-traditional students along: using personal messages or letters to remind them of key deadlines and expectations, to offer timely study tips, or to congratulate them on successes to help them build confidence (Canning 2017; Hume and Selley 2017). Wong suggests such minor ‘interventions’ can create a ‘ripple effect’ and help these students to develop their academic ‘habitus’ (Wong 2018).

Mentoring has been highlighted as a key component of such a strategy, with personal tutors in particular well placed to help deliver study skills support and the kind of ‘nudges’ outlined above (Clarke 2017). This can be a particularly effective way of supporting non-traditional students, with Wong highlighting that a feature common to many high achieving non-traditional students is the role played – ‘perhaps the most prominent agent of change’ – by a significant individual such as a tutor or mentor (Wong, 2018). The effectiveness of such an approach is enhanced when that mentor comes from a similar background to the student, as this serves to make the messages and experiences they communicate more relatable – as well as providing a ‘role model’ who can demonstrate that individuals from non-traditional backgrounds can be high achieving in an academic context (Atherton 2017).

 This also helps with feelings of alienation, making non-traditional students feel a greater sense that they belong in a university environment: indeed a recent study of widening participation at Bristol found that non-traditional students put a great deal of value on meeting people with similar experiences and from similar backgrounds in helping them to settle in at university (Davies and Harris 2016). This is a role that could be fulfilled not only by having a first generation academic as a mentor, but also through forms of peer socialising or study groups that bring non-traditional students together to create a sense of community and solidarity (Wong 2018).

This latter point touches on a key issue that was raised by Davies and Harris in their study of widening participation at Bristol: the aim of such interventions should not simply be to help non-traditional students ‘play the game’, and develop a white middle class ‘habitus’ so they can ‘fit in’. Instead, they suggest ‘some change of culture within the university too’ should take place so that the cultural values – the ‘habitus’ even – of non-traditional students is reflected in what we do (Davies and Harris 2016).

Although the language they use is different, Hayes and Fuller’s emphasis on a ‘strengths-led’ approach makes a similar point – rather than encouraging non-traditional students to ‘adapt’ to middle class culture, which inherently puts an emphasis on what they lack when they arrive and reinforces problems of low self-esteem and confidence, more emphasis is put on the aptitudes and skills that non-traditional students bring with them (Hayes and Fuller 2016). They argue that this could be reflected in alternative forms of assessment, or simply in greater use of positive reinforcement of the different experiences and perspectives that non-traditional students bring.    


Many of the underlying reasons why non-traditional students are often outperformed by more traditional students go beyond anything that could be addressed at a Departmental level. That said, this enquiry into the literature has highlighted several approaches that could be adopted, or adapted, at a local Departmental level, and which could serve to complement University-level schemes such as Bristol Scholars.

A system of mentoring for non-traditional students might be a good place to start: a group of academics from non-traditional backgrounds could undertake to mentor a group of non-traditional students (perhaps as personal tutors, or in addition to them). This could involve one-to-one meetings, but also occasional meetings as a group to share experiences, which would allow our students to see that many of their lecturers are in fact from non-traditional backgrounds, and that they should see themselves as very much belonging in the university environment. It would also provide them with an opportunity to meet fellow History students from similar backgrounds, to socialise or study with.

This network would help these students to feel more integrated into the Department and its culture, and could provide a framework for ‘nudges’ or for discussions of the ‘hidden curriculum’. It would also present an opportunity for us to talk to our students about their experiences, and the kind of support they might need: as stated at the outset the literature tends to deal in quite general terms – starting conversations with our own students would allow us to better identify the specific challenges facing students from different types of non-traditional backgrounds studying in our Departments.   

Further reading

Atherton, G., ‘A Global View: What England can Learn from the Rest of the World’, in Where Next for Widening Participation and Fair Access? New Insights from Leading Thinkers, Higher Education Policy Institute, Report 98 (2017).

Boliver V., Gorard S., Siddiqui N., ‘How Can we Widen Participation in Higher Education? The Promise of Contextualised Admissions’, in Deem R., Eggins H. (eds) The University as a Critical Institution?, Higher Education Research in the 21st Century Series (Rotterdam, 2017).

Boliver V., Gorard S., Siddiqui N, ‘A More Radical Approach to Contextualised Admissions’, in Where Next for Widening Participation and Fair Access? New Insights from Leading Thinkers, Higher Education Policy Institute, Report 98 (2017).

Canning, A-M., ‘Finding the Keys: Good Practices in Fair Access’, in Where Next for Widening Participation and Fair Access? New Insights from Leading Thinkers, Higher Education Policy Institute, Report 98 (2017).

Chatelian, M., ‘We Must Help First-Generation Students Master Academe’s ‘Hidden Curriculum’, Chronicle of Higher Education (2018).

Clarke, P., ‘Who You Know: The Importance of Social Capital in Widening Participation’, in Where Next for Widening Participation and Fair Access? New Insights from Leading Thinkers, Higher Education Policy Institute, Report 98 (2017).

Davies, S., Harris, R., ‘Widening Participation? Exploring the Effect of Financial Support and Outreach on the Choices and Experiences of Students in Bristol’, University of Bristol Personal Finance Research Centre(2017).

Friedman, S., Laurison, D., Macmillan, L., ‘Social Mobility, the Class Pay Gap and Intergenerational Worklessness: New Insights from The Labour Force Survey’, Social Mobility Commission (2017).

Hayes, D., Fuller, M., ‘What’s the Alternative? Building Students’ Self-awareness in Untraditional Settings’, in Where Next for Widening Participation and Fair Access? New Insights from Leading Thinkers, Higher Education Policy Institute, Report 98 (2017).

HESA, UK Performance Indicators 2015/16: Non-continuation rates (2017) []

Hume, S., Selley, E., ‘A Behavioural Approach to Widening Participation’, in Where Next for Widening Participation and Fair Access? New Insights from Leading Thinkers, Higher Education Policy Institute, Report 98 (2017).

Pope, E., Ladwa, N., Hayes, S., ‘Improving Retention’, in Where Next for Widening Participation and Fair Access? New Insights from Leading Thinkers, Higher Education Policy Institute, Report 98 (2017).

Squires, J., ‘Bristol Scholars’, in Where Next for Widening Participation and Fair Access? New Insights from Leading Thinkers, Higher Education Policy Institute, Report 98 (2017).

Wong, B., ‘By Chance or by Plan?: The Academic Success of Nontraditional Students in Higher Education’, AERA Open (2018).

1 thought on “Supporting Non-Traditional Students at a Departmental Level”

  1. This is a really insightful article which all staff should read! I would encourage the author to adapt it to publication in Times Higher Education, as the wider community would benefit.

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