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Professors are no longer looking out over a classroom full of college students at 18-year-old students who are fresh out of high school, eager to learn, and living on their own for the first time in the campus dormitory. They are mixed with older students who went straight into the workforce after high school and are now working and raising families. They want to find better ways to support their families and are looking for a career rather than a job.
Two-year colleges, such as community colleges and for-profit colleges, attract most students because they can earn a degree and start a new career quickly and flexibly. Students who exhibit these and other characteristics are known as nontraditional students or adult learners, and they have very different educational needs than a traditional 18-year-old student.
Nontraditional students account for the vast majority of postsecondary students in the United States. According to a 2015 National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) study, 74% of college students are nontraditional. What is a nontraditional student? Discover the various nontraditional student definitions and the challenges these students face.
What is a nontraditional student? Definition
There is no simple definition of a nontraditional student. While some colleges consider all students over a certain age to be nontraditional, others consider factors such as income, marital status, and whether or not a student has a high school diploma.
The National Center for Education Statistics defines a nontraditional college student based on three main criteria:
Patterns of Enrollment
The timing and manner in which you enroll in college can determine whether you are a traditional or nontraditional student. Nontraditional students enroll one or more years after graduating high school or attend college part-time.
Financial and family circumstances
Nontraditional family and financial characteristics include:
- Having one or more dependent children.
- Being a single parent.
- Working a full-time job while in school.
- Being financially independent.
Status of High School Graduation
NCES would consider you a nontraditional college student if you received a GED certificate or other high school equivalency diploma instead of a regular high school diploma.
In the eyes of the US government, if you meet at least one of the above criteria, you are a nontraditional student.
However, in general, there are seven benchmarks for categorizing a learner as nontraditional, but the learner only needs to fulfill one of these criteria to be classified as nontraditional:
- Being over the age of 24
- Holding a GED
- Having a kid
- Being a single parent
- Pausing at least one year after high school to begin college
- Being a first-generation student (FGS) means they are the first in their family to attend college.
Some people consider the need for financial aid a characteristic, but that is not what most of the literature says because almost every college student, traditional or not, receives some aid. Students who meet only one of these criteria are classified as nontraditional. However, these characteristics are frequently combined, such as age, children, and employment.
Nontraditional students’ most common story is that they had children when they were young, worked multiple jobs to raise them, and now it is their turn to find a career to better support themselves and their families. Nontraditional students are mostly female, but this is a trend, not a requirement.
Additional Definitions of Nontraditional Students
Despite the NCES guidelines, many schools define nontraditional students differently. While some colleges have stricter requirements, others allow students to self-identify as nontraditional.
Here are some examples of nontraditional student definitions that are not traditional:
- Students who travel a certain distance to campus, such as more than 10 miles, are considered to have a long commute.
- Students who do not live on campus or in university housing have different living situations.
- Students who begin college at the age of 25 or older
- Those who have previously attended college but did not complete their degree
- Students who earn or whose families earn less than a certain amount per year.
The Increasing Population at Colleges
College populations have changed dramatically since 2006. Unfortunately, enrollment trends in higher education are declining, but the ratio of nontraditional learners is predicted to grow more quickly than traditional students. The number of nontraditional college students increased to 8.9 million for the first span of higher education in the United States in 2010. However, from 2015, the nontraditional population increased by 35% to 12 million, and it is expected to increase by another 11% to 13.3 million by 2026.
These students make up more than 71% of all students enrolled in higher education. According to a 2012 study, 14% of nontraditional students attend community colleges, 10% attend public four-year colleges, 8% attend private four-year colleges, 2% attend four-year programs at for-profit institutions, and the remaining 66% attend for-profit institutions.
The Most Appealing Schools for Nontraditional Students
According to registration statistics, community universities and for-profit institutions are the most appealing academies for nontraditional learners because they generally offer grades and certificate courses that take two years or less to complete, have course scheduling flexibility, offer online options, and programs are usually career-oriented. Both schools, for example, typically offer workforce-related programs such as nursing, truck driving, cosmetology, or welding, allowing nontraditional students to join the workforce quickly. Most nontraditional scholars have worked multiple jobs and want to get into a career as soon as possible.
The capability to transfer credits from these schools makes them appealing as well. The primary distinction between community colleges and for-profit colleges is funding. Community colleges are supported by state and federal budgets, allowing them to provide more services to students, such as educational planning, counseling centers, and advising, because more money is available per student. However, for-profit schools do not receive state or federal funding. They are solely supported by student tuition, Pell Grants for low-income students, private loans taken out by students to pay for tuition, and GI Bills.
As a result, program costs are typically higher, and fewer student services are available because less money is spent per student. While community colleges are run by governing boards, which means they are more closely regulated and have boards to answer to, for-profits are run by corporations and businesses, which means their goal is to make profits. They only have accountability to their stakeholders or investors.
Though both types of schools must be accredited to operate as schools, credits from community colleges typically transfer to four-year schools or bridge programs, allowing students to continue their education after community college. Bridge programs or a structure that allows earned credits to transfer outside the for-profit system are rare at for-profit schools such as Capella University, the University of Phoenix, McCann, or Fortis Institute.
Four Tips for Choosing a College as a Nontraditional Student
Before enrolling, prospective nontraditional students should ensure that their college provides flexibility, affordability, and an overall welcoming environment.
- Put flexibility first
Balancing school, work, and family life may seem impossible, but it does not have to be. Look for programs with a lot of scheduling flexibility. For example, you might prefer a program with rolling start dates or evening and weekend classes.
You should also consider accelerated programs to finish your bachelor’s degree in shorter than four years.
- Think about an online program
Despite their sometimes negative reputation, online college programs can be just as good as, if not better, in-person programs. What’s particularly appealing about online learning is that it allows you to fit classes into your daily schedule without worrying about commuting to campus or paying for childcare.
- Make certain that it is affordable
College tuition varies greatly. If money is tight, prioritize state schools over out-of-state or private schools. It’s also a sound idea to look for schools that offer scholarships to nontraditional students (or any other identity you may have). Another option is to see if your employer will pay for all or a portion of your education. Employer sponsorship programs are maintained by some companies, particularly larger corporations, for employees who want to hone or develop specific skills.
Finally, remember to apply for financial aid by completing the FAFSA. Students may be eligible for federal loans and grants regardless of their age, credit score, or enrollment status (i.e., part-time vs. full-time).
- Look for Friendly Environments
Some schools cater to nontraditional students better than others, providing benefits such as career services, family housing, and nontraditional student groups. Before applying to a college, make sure it has what you’re looking for in a campus environment.
For example, you might prioritize a college that offers on-campus childcare if you have a small child. Furthermore, if you want to make friends with others in a similar situation, look for institutions with a nontraditional student group that you could join.
Problems with Nontraditional Students
Nontraditional students face different issues in college than their 18-year-old traditional counterparts because they are older, may have children, are typically working, and are financially independent. Because adult learners are enrolled in all higher education institutions, administrators and instructors must understand these issues to develop better systems and instructional techniques to assist these students in succeeding and graduating. Almost 70% of nontraditional students drop out of college. These are the types of issues that nontraditional students face:
According to the Lumina Foundation, the two most significant issues nontraditional students face are family and work responsibilities. Because more than 80% of adult learners work while attending school, balancing their families, financial obligations, and schoolwork is a significant issue for these students. Childcare, finances, health issues, transportation, and figuring out how to manage it all were major impediments to staying in school.
Academically, transitioning back into a classroom is difficult for nontraditional learners because they spend at least one year out of the academy after graduating from high school or completing their GED. Changes in technology, strategies for taking notes and tests, reading textbooks, and navigating teacher expectations are nontraditional learners’ most common challenges. Many people require foundational math and writing courses to refresh or learn new skills. Some people require assistance in comprehending what a syllabus is, what it is used for, how to navigate it, and how to create its structure.
Emotions are the final category that causes problems for nontraditional students. Adult learners may experience a variety of anxieties related to their age and school experiences once they enter the classroom because they are older than traditional students. They also have serious doubts and low self-esteem.
Adult learners react more strongly to any mistake, no matter how minor it appears to others. Being in a classroom also implies that they are away from their families and doing something for themselves, resulting in feelings of selfishness and guilt. According to the Lumina Foundation study, more than half of respondents said fear kept them from attempting to attend college.
A nontraditional student who is also a first-generation student frequently feels misunderstood at home because their family members do not comprehend what they are going through. Relatives may try to empathize with the adult learner, but because they cannot relate firsthand, the adult learner may feel isolated. This is exacerbated by language differences and English words that may not translate correctly. FGS students frequently feel unsupported, lost and confused as they are the first to attempt to navigate the college process.
While the application process may appear simple, it can be challenging for adult learners unfamiliar with technology and completing forms online. Following that is navigating the registration process, completing a FAFSA for financial aid, and understanding which courses to take for specific programs. Most colleges have departments to help students with these steps, but starting these processes can be so intimidating and overwhelming that students may talk themselves out of it before even trying.
College Education Funding
Like many traditional students, Nontraditional students are concerned about their ability to afford a college education. After all, college is a significant financial investment.
The average tuition cost at public four-year institutions is $10,560 for in-state students and $27,020 for out-of-state students, according to the College Board’s 2020 Trends in College Pricing report. Private universities are even more expensive, with annual tuition averaging $37,650.
Those with children or other family members to support may struggle to pay for their education.
Understanding Modern Technology
Technology is always changing. If you haven’t gone to college in a long time, you might be surprised at how different it is now, especially in terms of the technology students are expected to know how to use.
Most schools, for example, use learning management systems like Blackboard and Canvas to disseminate information about course requirements, assignments, syllabi, and grades. Knowing how to use these systems can help you adjust to your academic program and new life as a student more quickly.
You should also have consistent internet access, a fully functional computer with programs like Microsoft Word and PowerPoint, and a webcam (should you opt for online classes).
Because many nontraditional students are older than their peers, they may feel awkward and out of place. As a nontraditional student, you should strive to maintain a high self-confidence to succeed academically and learn to value your identity as a student.
Age is meaningless; you are never too old to learn, change careers, or pursue your dreams. It’s also worth remembering that nontraditional students make up most college students, so many of your peers are likely going through similar things.
Nontraditional Students’ Requirements
When colleges fail to address the issues of nontraditional students, these students drop out, most often within the first four months; thus, there are services that colleges can focus on for their adult learner population to keep them enrolled and help them succeed.
Early Intervention (EI)
Nearly half of adult students who enroll in college require some form of remediation. Delivering this to students in their first semester allows them to cope with their feelings and reduces their chances of dropping out. Because of their success, mandatory freshman seminar courses have been rising at colleges and universities nationwide.
A seminar course is offered by approximately 94% of all colleges. Nontraditional students benefit greatly from these courses because they have smaller class sizes, offer students emotional, academic, and time management strategies, and provide useful fundamental skills.
They are most beneficial when offered as three-credit courses because students can work through issues that arise during their first semester. Freshman seminar courses aren’t the only way to help nontraditional students get into college.
Creating opportunities for nontraditional students to meet each other before the start of a semester and between the semester can allow them to understand that they are not alone in their concerns and issues. Creating a network for nontraditional students can help them feel more connected to school and want to be there.
Assigning faculty mentors to students early in their college careers, complementing an educational advisor and counselor, can support students who feel insulated by their academy so that no matter what they require, they have a location to go for consistent and honest answers. Nontraditional students thrive faster when they know they have people behind them to support them and begin to trust those departments; thus, follow-through is an important and valuable tool in gaining an adult learner’s trust.
Nontraditional learners will typically take advantage of opportunities presented to them, but they are far less likely to seek assistance, even if available.
Course flexibility has been near the top of nontraditional students’ needs since they first appeared on researchers’ radars. Adult learners prefer schools that offer evening, weekend, and online courses; shorter programs with only necessary courses that get learners into the workforce faster; credit for courses the student has already taken; and are geographically close to the student.
Fifty percent of students thought transfer credits were very important in school selection, and nearly 75 percent thought flexible schedules were very important. Schools that provide childcare and transportation to their students are far more popular among adult learners, as this alleviates the external pressures that nontraditional students face.
Instructors must shift away from traditional lecture-based instruction and instead create a learner-centered environment for nontraditional students. Giving students options, using active learning strategies, flipping classrooms where students read or listen to the lecture for homework and use class time for projects or problems, and having students be instructors are all ways to accomplish this. Nontraditional students learn best when they can relate the course material to their lives and the world around them; this practical application of material makes it more impactful and meaningful for adult learners.
This means they learn best when actively engaging with the material, such as role-playing, participating in discussions, observing, and using hands-on applications. Furthermore, instructors must be willing and excited to have their students teach them. Each nontraditional student has been in the “real world,” and they all have unique and valuable experiences to share. Nontraditional students respond better when instructors set clear expectations from the start of a course and provide both formal and informal feedback on assignments and daily progress.
A strong connection with instructors and a school’s facilities is essential for a nontraditional student’s success. Students who developed personal connections with their teachers were more motivated, held more accountable, and felt more invested in the school.
Adult learners already have many external motivators for doing well in school, such as making a better living, setting a good example for their children, and achieving their own goals; however, nontraditional students have developed self-concepts about school based on previous experiences and may lack positive internal motivation for school.
Adult learners quickly lose initial motivation and excitement when they experience a setback, no matter how minor, due to their history and emotional vulnerability. Because of this possible lack of internal motivation or poor self-concept regarding school, instructors must consistently provide positive, extrinsic motivation to these students until they buy into the concept themselves. Instructors do little things such as knowing their students’ names, remembering personal details about them, taking an active role in caring for their student’s success, and relating to them personally speak volumes to nontraditional students.
Students’ motivation, anxiety, and persistence can be increased by providing structure, specific learning objectives, immediate feedback, constant access to their grades and records, learning students’ temperaments, and beginning assessments graded on effort rather than correctness. Positive extrinsic motivation used by instructors, such as displaying signs of pride, belief in their abilities, encouragement, care, interest in their lives, and positive feedback, increases an adult learner’s sense of investment and value in their school and education. Relationships between faculty and students are critical to the success of adult learners.
Nontraditional students enrolled in any college postsecondary program, without a doubt, require support, guidance, and patience from those in their personal and academic lives. Part of the responsibility that instructors and schools bear when enrolling large populations of adult learners is to teach the students how to persevere and succeed and first understand the students’ deficits and challenges.
Implementing these strategies results in a positive learning experience for the student and a strong rapport with the instructor, which can promote a lifelong love of learning and lead to retention, persistence, and completion.