Winning at Student Retention: How to Succeed as a Nontraditional Nursing Student

Winning at Student Retention: How to Succeed as a Nontraditional Nursing Student

Nursing student retention is a major question at nursing school programs across the US. What factors help a student stay in or drop out of a program, and how can you stay on the winning side of the retention statistics?

The Surge in Nontraditional Nursing Students

If you’re not coming to nursing school straight out of high school, join the club! The nursing student body is attracting a growing number of what are referred to as “nontraditional students.” According to Marianne R. Jeffreys, author of Nursing Student Retention: Understanding the Process and Making a Difference, nontraditional students tend to fall into one or more of the following categories:

  • Age 25 years of age or older
  • First-generation college students
  • Attend school on a part-time basis
  • Members of ethnic or racial minority group
  • Speak English as a second language
  • Have dependent children
  • Have a GED
  • Commutes to campus
  • Changing to nursing from a former career
  • Taking remedial, refresher, or update courses
  • Male students

Despite the need for nurses from varied backgrounds to treat an increasingly diverse patient population, nontraditional students face a number of challenges. Quite often, a nontraditional student is driven to drop out owing to time and/or financial constraints, family/childcare responsibilities, work commitments, and other conflicts that interfere with their ability to fulfill course work requirements and achieve academic success.

However, there are a variety of options available to students in such situations. Many programs seek to reactivate lapsed students by offering tuition waivers and make use of special grants to increase student retention and head off the drop-out process. Look for a school that is making use of such grants to create peer-mentoring networks, test prep workshops, and other special activities—measures that have been proven to enhance your experience and increase your chances of success in the program. Taking advantage of these opportunities can help you to meet the challenges of your course-load, reduce stress, give you greater confidence, and increase your chances of passing the NCLEX.

Get the Support You Need—and Deserve

If you are a nontraditional student, keep in mind that your background and situation make you very attractive to the nursing profession! Nontraditional students are in great demand at all levels of nursing education; with your background and abilities you can make a unique and vital contribution.

According to a recent CUNY study , “support by faculty, friends, and family was the key determinant of first semester nursing students’ ability to remain in the nursing course.” Keeping this in mind, take confidence in your value to the profession, don’t be shy, and put yourself out there:

  • Make an effort to ask questions in classes and go to faculty for help: it is always better to ask a question than to leave it unasked! If there is something you don’t understand, speak up in class—and if you have more questions than can be managed during a lesson, schedule time to meet with your instructors for help after class.
  • Worried about financing your degree? Talk to your financial aid advisor to apply and negotiate for student loans—they’re not just for recent high-school grads. And, if you’re in a BSN program, don’t forget that a nurse externship enables you to collect a salary while gaining hands-on experience with patients—and will also hone your competitive edge in the job market.
  • If your school offers a peer mentoring program, take advantage of it. According to the journal Nursing 2020, “students who are peer mentored have better rates of retention and are more successful.” Connecting with a peer mentor can help you to master a challenging course, develop better study habits, bring you closer to your classmates, and increase your self-confidence—all of which can lead to a higher GPA and NCLEX score!
  • Make the most of your school’s academic support services. Keep in mind: regular meetings with your faculty advisor can make an enormous difference—for instance, did you know that counseled students have higher retention rates than non-counseled students?

Pursue Success in Your Classes

Nursing is a demanding, rigorous discipline, but those demands can be met. Here are some basic steps you can take toward success in obtaining your degree and license:

  • Practice self-efficacy: Self-efficacy reflects confidence in the ability to exert control over one’s own motivation, behavior, and social environment. Stanford University’s Albert Bandura says of self-efficacy, “After people become convinced they have what it takes to succeed, they persevere in the face of adversity and quickly rebound from setbacks. By sticking it out through tough times, they emerge stronger from adversity.” Push negative thoughts out of your head and motivate yourself to succeed; form targets and commit to meeting them; be persistent—approach hardships and setbacks as challenges to be overcome with increased energy and efforts.
  • Double down on your studying skills (check out the University of North Carolina’s helpful guide, Study Smarter Not Harder). Did you know that time management, organizing, and planning are better indicators of academic success than your total number of study hours? Using your time effectively is the key.
  • Attendance is vital. Did you know that your nursing program’s attendance policies may be stricter than the policy of your parent institution? You also need to take into consideration that in a nursing program, in addition to your classroom hours, attendance requirements also include specific nursing course components such as skills laboratory and/or clinical hours.
  •  “Attending” while you attend class and read your textbooks and notes is also essential: how involved are you during class and when reading? Speaking of notes, have you developed good note-taking skills? Did you know that most studies indicate it is more effective to take notes by hand instead of using a laptop?
  • If you have outside obligations that are making it hard for you to focus, talk to a peer mentor or a faculty advisor—sooner rather than later—about adjustments you can make that will help you to concentrate and remain alert.

How Family, Children, and Work Affect Student Retention

Marianne Jeffreys remarks, “People have lives that constitute more than nursing school. The reality is that environmental factors can influence student retention, persistence, and success more than academic factors.” When it comes to academic success, personal “environment” plays a key role in student retention. For example, are you living with family or raising children? Working a full- or part-time job? Do you have a long commute to and from school? For the traditional student, college adjustment and social integration into the college residential life-environment play a substantial role in academic success. For the nontraditional student, “environment” is largely composed of off-campus life: where you live (and with whom), the financial constraints you live under, family/work obligations, transportation issues, and other factors that affect your life both on- and off-campus.

One hurdle to look out for is the late-semester crunch. Studies have found that the challenges a nontraditional student faces on a day-to-day basis can be lighter or heavier depending on the time of year. Earlier in the semester, for instance, family, relationship, and work responsibilities can exert a moderate, but manageable pressure on the demands of school. Later in a semester, though—for example, when exams are pending—those same responsibilities can feel a lot more burdensome. This is a good time to seek out faculty and peer mentor guidance for help managing time and juggling the various “hats” you wear while fulfilling responsibilities at home, work, and school.

And what about children? An increasing number of students have dependent children; how do they manage? Research has shown that even single parents are more resilient than might be expected. In one study, almost 60% of students with children reported that they found child care to be supportive of their goals and aspirations in nursing, while others stated that their child-care arrangements did not influence course retention at all. As Jeffreys adds, “notably, all of these students remained in nursing courses throughout the semester and successfully passed the course.”

Working while attending school is becoming a fact of life for both traditional and nontraditional students. Even traditional students now often work 30 hours a week or more. And, once again, the perceived impact of employment responsibilities on schooling can be subject to that late-semester crunch. What may seem manageable earlier in the semester can start to feel increasingly restrictive later on. When setting your hours of employment, also keep in mind that the number of hours you work can have a significant impact on academic achievement and student retention: a 40-hour work week can make school substantially harder than a 30-hour work week. Plan out your budget, and don’t take on more hours than you absolutely need.

The Role of Encouragement and Emotional Support

Families can offer forms of support that can compensate for lack of financial wherewithal. Emotional support and expressions of pride and encouragement regarding your educational and career goals can make all of the hardships worthwhile. In her book, Marianne Jeffreys cites a study of over 1100 culturally and generationally diverse undergraduate commuter nursing students that showed family emotional support was one of the most powerful influences on their ability to remain in a nursing course. If you feel that your family or significant other could be more supportive of your efforts, supplement your own inner resources by talking to your advisor or peer mentor. And remember your friends: the support of good friends can give you a boost during crucial moments.

As nursing schools are becoming increasingly reliant on nontraditional students, the issues such students face are attracting ever more attention from administrators and faculty. In addition to the student retention measures already in place, programs will continue to seek out ways to attract—and retain—nontraditional students and support them in their progress toward their degrees. And, whether you are a nontraditional or a traditional student, make your voice heard! Talk to faculty, administrators, and peer mentors to contribute your own suggestions about ways to pave the path to success to graduation.

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