SmartRecruiters Blog

Nontraditional College Students Are the New Norm. Four Things That Means for Recruiters

Students are graduating later and working more between classes. In the face of these demographic shifts, is the same old internship system still viable?

According to pop culture, a college student is a late-teen, plaid-clad specimen, recently graduated from high school, spouting psych 101 interpretations of Freud between weekend dorm shenanigans and set to graduate in four years. The problem is, this is no longer true, or hasn’t been for a while, if it ever was.

The majority of today’s college students aren’t living care-free on campus, they’re independent (sometimes with dependents) part-time students, with full-time jobs on top of their course load. A completed bachelor’s degree is attained by only 33.8 percent of the US population, and for many of those, college is less an Animal House coming of age adventure, but more a load of debt that ends with an unpaid internship.

“I don’t think people have got their heads wrapped around that yet,” says Alexandria Walton Radford, head of postsecondary education research at the North Carolina think tank RTI International. According to their research, ”this isn’t a new phenomenon. We’ve been looking at this since 1996.”

A typical college student today is nontraditional, a term Radford and her team define as having one of the following characteristics, which 74 percent possess. An additional 30 percent count two or three.

  • Financially independent from their parents (in the eyes of financial aid)
  • Have a child or other dependent
  • Are the sole single caregiver
  • Lack a traditional high-school diploma
  • Delay postsecondary enrollment
  • Attend school part-time
  • Are employed full-time

To give you an idea of what this new normal looks like, one in four students enrolled in higher education programs are caring for a child. Two in five of those students are attending community college, as opposed to a four-year institution. Of those matriculated at the latter, nearly a quarter are part-time, and about the same number are over 25.

That means the majority of graduates embark into post-collegiate life with a wealth of life and work experience, so treating them as ingenues away from home for the first time just seems like bad recruiting.

How to recruit for the new normal:

We talked with Melissa Weir, director of B2B Marketing for WayUP, a platform for college students and recent grads looking to break into the world of work. Here’s what Weir has found surveying their user base.

    1. Make opportunities accessible: “Since most students live off campus,” Weir reminds us, “it’s important to have internships and job opportunities available online. Career fairs are great, but with most students working at least part-time and/or caring for children, it’s not always feasible to be there in person.”
    2. Don’t wait ‘til graduation: “We see employers recruiting as early as sophomore year,” says Weir, “especially in the financial sector.” Why not take a cue from these titans of industry and look for students to fill internships and entry-level jobs? We know many of these students work full-time already, and a job in their industry would beat the retail/food service gigs usually available to pre-grads. Make this a viable option by offering flexible working hours or remote working alternatives.
    3. Learn what work-life balance means to them: “Thirty-eight percent of the students we surveyed last year defined work-life balance as ‘doing something you love’,” says Weir. “This definition was surprising at first, but if you think for a moment it actually makes a lot of sense. Many students are delaying their education, taking time to solidify their career goals and save up as they will be financing their education themselves. At the end of it, they want to find a job they really love that is worth the sacrifice.”
    4. Show off your values: “Ninety-one percent of students chose ‘values emphasized during recruiting and the reputation/culture’ when asked how they suss out the optimal fit for themselves at a company.” Says Weir. And authenticity is a big factor. For example, students overwhelmingly preferred the offer of 10 vacation days to that of unlimited because they felt the latter to be disingenuine. Takeaways here are: check your company’s online reviews, pick some positive traits of your work culture to emphasize, and be explicit about the benefits and perks of the job.
Kaya Payseno

Kaya Payseno