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What is nontraditional? Who is online?

Librarians aren’t the only ones who categorize information. Humans are really, really comfortable sticking with what we know, and rejecting whatever counters what we know. It’s all a part of our brain’s effort to defend us from the unknown — a phenomena known as confirmation bias.

For example, everyone knows that most college freshmen are 18-19 year olds whose parents pay for everything  right? Obviously not. But, I’ll bet that your brain was cozying up to at least one thing in that sentence: that college freshmen are 18-19. I have to admit, even though I am opposed to stereotypes and I work at a community college, where the population is diverse in many different ways, I fell for that part myself. I know not everyone in college today is fresh out of high school, but I would have said the majority of students are.

Wrong. I came across an article on NPR’s website about a researcher whose work is to study these demographics (Alexandria Walton Radford) and it turns out what college administrators and faculty call “nontraditional” students are actually the majority and have been for some time. You can see all the traits that are included in “nontraditional” in the article. Things like not being a recent high school grad (or not graduating from high school at all), having kids or caring for other family members, working full time, going to college part time, being on their own financially, etc. The article notes that according to Radford’s research, “close to 74 percent of undergrads” meet one of the criteria she uses to define nontraditional, and around 66% meet more than one.

Turns out FiveThirtyEight wrote about this two years ago. But the mainstream culture continues to hold onto the stereotype. Speaking of, another common stereotype our confirmation bias loves is “everyone” is online. Everyone has the internet in their pockets, right? We’re all zipping around shopping, playing games, and streaming movies wherever we go? That’s also wrong. As I recently noted, Pew Research Center reports that 1/3 of adults in America don’t have high speed internet access at home, and many of the have-nots are poor, older, rural, or minorities. Today I read that Pew delved deeper into this research and fully 58% of rural Americans feel their lack of broadband internet access is “a problem” (24% think it’s a major problem, and 34% say it’s a minor problem). Rural Americans are twice as likely as their urban counterparts to never go online at all — 22% don’t, which really shocked me. Only 66% have smartphones, versus 83% of city dwellers.

So, no everyone is online. And college students are much more diverse in age, experience, and financial standing than we think. All of this very much impacts academic library services because I think it’s safe to say our confirmation biases tell us that online resource and service are what “everyone” using our libraries wants or needs.  And we tell ourselves “everyone” can get to our services, especially since mobile access is often growing (possibly because our students can’t afford laptops, but that’s another blog post). But the conversation on my campus lately is that these assumptions are not only wrong, they are important for us to counter, because some of our students are simply not able to access what they need to for class because not everyone is online. I’ve looked into wifi hotspots, which some public libraries lend, but for students who live outside of areas with good cell coverage (I lose cell coverage between work and home frequently) this may not be a viable solution.

As librarians, we need to check our confirmation bias, examine who our patrons really are and what they need, and think about alternatives.

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About Deb Baker

Deb Baker is a writer and insatiable reader, and library director at a community college. She muses about library issues at The Nocturnal Librarian (https://thenocturnallibrarian.com/) and blogs about books, reading, and life at bookconscious (http://bookconscious.wordpress.com/). Her family includes two awesome offspring, a husband, and the cat who adopted them. And a crazy rescue kitten.

4 responses to “What is nontraditional? Who is online?

  1. I told my kid that my contract was for 18 years.

  2. Mike Brennen ⋅

    Great post. Didn’t know that “confirmation bias” existed as the technical term fir closeminded.

  3. Econogal

    Thank you for discussing this. I taught at a community college for 20 years and always had as many or more non-traditional students. Furthermore, for many their only access to the Internet was on campus.

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