Who is the Nontraditional Student?
In addition to those students who simply put off attending college after graduating from high school, a large number of nontraditional students may have started higher education but dropped out for one reason or another. Learn more about resources and support for re-entry students.
Defined from a financial aid standpoint, nontraditional students are any postsecondary learners who can’t count on their families for monetary assistance. Unlike traditional students who rely on parental income, typically study on a full-time basis, and are all under the age of 30, nontraditional students don’t fit as neatly into a single box. Fifty percent of these students have children, but many nontraditional students, regardless of marital or parental status, attend school part-time and have lower incomes than students who are legal dependents of parents or guardians.
Wondering if you fit within the classification of nontraditional student? As outlined by the National Center for Education Statistics, the most common characteristics include:
Delaying higher education after graduating from high school, be it for financial or life reasons
Working 35 or more hours per week, which is classified as full-time employment
Being a single parent, meaning students lack financial support in their child’s upbringing
Having children or dependents other than a spouse, requiring students to juggle educational and parental responsibilities
Being financially independent, meaning students receive no financial assistance from family members
Attending college on a part-time basis, meaning students take less than 12 hours per semester
Having a GED, but not a high school diploma, which often means the student did not graduate high school but successfully passed the GED test sequence
Meeting the Challenges Faced by Nontraditional Students
Aside from completing her own degree as a nontraditional student, Dr. Erica Wyatt works at Ottawa University, an institution that primarily serves this learning population. We asked her about the top five most common challenges adult students face, and what solutions and support mechanisms can be accessed. Here’s what she had to say:
1. “Since most nontraditional students are also full-time employees seeking to advance their career through higher education, they often run into challenges with time management and prioritization.”
When going back to school, it’s important for the families of nontraditional students to support their decision and find ways to help them continue their educations. While some students may be able to access campus-based childcare, others may need to find a subsidized or sliding-scale program for younger children. Weber State University provides one such example, offering professional childcare for just $3.50 per hour. Partners and spouses may also need to pitch in to help with housework, homework, childcare, or elder care.
2. “Nontraditional students are challenged with the anxiety of returning to school after taking a break. Their first encounters with faculty and other academic administrators are vital to their success; if these first encounters aren’t positive, it could negatively impact their desire to continue pursuing their degree.”
Before enrolling in any program, students should ascertain whether the institution has adequate programs and support services tailored to nontraditional learners. It’s also important to ask if faculty and staff are trained in how to specifically serve this population. Most schools should have mechanisms in place, but it may be wise to skip those that cater primarily to traditional students. Kansas State University is a great example of an institution that provides specific training for faculty in this area.
3. “Nontraditional students aren’t as connected to the campus and campus resources as traditional students. Because they need to balance work, home, and school, they don’t have as much time to get involved in the type of activities that have been proven to increase academic success amongst learners.”
Just because nontraditional students don’t have as much time for student clubs and organizations doesn’t mean they can’t build community on campus. In addition to some schools that have nontraditional student clubs, these learners can also consider finding a workout buddy at the campus gym, attending lectures to find likeminded individuals, or hanging out in the student center during breaks from classes. Some institutions, like Wright University, may offer a “Connections Day” for incoming transfers and nontraditional students to connect.
4. “Since they took a break between high school and college, these learners may have greater difficulties relating to ‘new’ ways of doing things as it relates to utilizing technology to complete assignments, communicate with faculty, or cope with daily responsibilities.”
Adult students who aren’t familiar with technologies commonly used in today’s classrooms may be nervous at first, but the reality is that many of the tools now utilized can help make their lives easier. Students with long commutes can utilize apps like Smart Voice Record to record lectures and play them while traveling, while Google Calendar can be accessed from anywhere and synched with family, work, and school schedules.
5. “Students may be apprehensive about communicating with faculty because of their anxieties about being seen as ‘incompetent’ or ‘unprepared’ for college level coursework. Being the oldest student in the class may also present some anxiety and apprehensiveness about the college journey.”
It may be tempting to think about being older than everyone, but the reality is that nontraditional students bring a wealth of life experience, maturity, and wisdom to the classroom that can’t often be matched by traditional college freshmen. And while they might feel rusty when it comes to topics they learned in high school, And while they might feel rusty when it comes to topics they learned in high school, most incoming freshmen aren't prepared for the rigors of college, either, according to a Hechinger Report investigation of students in 44 states.
Choosing a Major as an Adult
Unlike traditional students moving straight from high school into higher education who have had lots of conversations with guidance counselors about majors, nontraditional students often don’t have as clear a sense of what to study. But while 18-year-olds may have an idea of their passions and interests, adult students are able to bring additional knowledge gleaned by work experience and a fuller understanding of their strengths and skills.
Nontraditional students who are struggling to decide which path to take have a couple different options at their fingertips to aid in the decision-making process. These include:
Take a personality test or aptitude quiz to get a better sense of your skills and knowledge and how they can transfer to specific careers.
Think about all the jobs you’ve held previously and the different aspects about each that you enjoyed. A pattern of responsibilities you enjoyed may emerge to help you narrow the options (e.g. you’ve never liked dealing with financials, but marketing is something you’re passionate about).
Consider why you want to go to school in the first place. What are your goals? By understanding how much importance you place on quality of life, work/life balance, earning potential, or job security levels, you’ll be able to narrow the options.
Scholarships & Grants for Nontraditional Students
Since adult learners can’t count on family members to help offset the costs of college, finding ways to lessen the financial burden is key. The scholarships given below are all aimed at giving nontraditional students a helping hand.
This one-time scholarship of approximately $2,700 is available to adult students attending a college that has an ASL Chapter (though students aren’t required to be members). To be eligible, applicants must have completed at least 24 hours and maintained a GPA of 3.2 on a 4.0 scale. The application deadline is April 30.
This annual scholarship of $2,000 is provided to any student member of the American Legion, Auxiliary, or Sons of the American Legion who are in good standing and are classified as a nontraditional student. Applicants may be pursuing a two- or four-year degree, or a certification, trade, professional, or technical program The application deadline is March 1.
The Association for Nontraditional Students in Higher Education provides annual scholarships of varied amounts to students who are at least 23-years-old and meet a series of other criteria. The application deadline is February 15.
The Kentucky Association of Conservation Districts Auxiliary provides one annual scholarship of $1,000 to students who are at least 25-years-old and pursuing an undergraduate degree in agriculture or a related natural resources field. Application deadlines vary.
These awards are made to women who are at least 25-years-old who reside in the state of Georgia and are currently enrolled in an accredited degree program. Amounts vary each year, and the application deadline is April 21.
Support & Resources for Adult/Non-Traditional Students
This national nonprofit works to improve and encourage educational access for all women, including those who fall into the nontraditional category.
The Adult Higher Education Alliance
AHEA encourages collaboration and partnership between individuals and institutions who want to support and advance services available to adults enrolled in higher education.
Adult Learner Handbook
Although some of the advice in this handbook is specific to Penn State University students, it also includes helpful checklists and things to consider before the first day of classes.
Adult Student Aid Checklist
The U.S. Department of Education provides this checklist to ensure adult students don’t miss out on available funding.
Alpha Sigma Lambda Honor Society
This organization recognizes the special achievements of adults who accomplish academic excellence while facing competing interests of home and work.
The Council for Adult & Experiential Learning
CAEL works tirelessly to break down barriers and make it easy for students – no matter their age – to get the education and training they need to thrive.
How to Find Times for Distance Learning While Working Full-Time
This is a great read for nontraditional students who are enrolled in online learning programs while also juggling a full-time job.
Jeannette Rankin Foundation
Started with $16,000 of seed money bequeathed by Jeannette Rankin in 1978, this foundation has provided more than $2.5 million in scholarships to low-income women over the age of 35 who want to attend college. The organization also advocates for educational access to this population.
Nontraditional Student Association
Though not available on every campus, newly enrolled learners should check to see if their campus has a similar association where they can find community and support from individuals with similar experiences.
Nontraditional Student Childcare Grants
Many colleges, including Southern Utah University, offer discounted part- or full-time childcare for adult learners who need these services while in school.
Expert Advice for Nontraditional Students & Adult Learners
Dr. Erica Wyatt is the professor in charge of the M.A. in Counseling program at Ottawa University in Brookfield, WI, which primarily serves nontraditional college students. Dr. Wyatt completed her Ph.D. at Capella University as a nontraditional college student and is passionate about researching strategies that colleges can implement to better serve first-generation students, nontraditional students and other vulnerable student populations. She coaches nontraditional college students through the process of successfully completing their degree in a manner that is cost effective and provides them with the greatest chances for professional advancement and growth.
What are your top five pieces of advice for adult/non-traditional students who are considering college?
1. Ensure that you have a strong support system.
Support is crucial to academic success and this is even more so when it applies to nontraditional students. The right support can help to mediate much of the anxiety that is felt when returning to school. A strong support system is equally vested in the student's success, and they will help the student manage some of his/her other responsibilities outside of school to alleviate some of the stress.
2. Maintain an open line of communication with faculty.
It is vital that when students are having difficulty inside or outside of the classroom, they communicate these issues to their instructors so that they can assist them in working through them. Communication can many times be the difference between a student's success and failure.
3. Seek grants/scholarships to alleviate some of the financial burden associated with college.
Often, finances become a very stressful aspect of going back to school as a nontraditional student. Therefore, finding as much FREE money as possible before going to college could really make a huge difference in the student's academic success.
4. Research the chosen major/career field to ensure the degree will benefit them in the long run.
If the student is employed, he/she could discuss the benefits of higher education with his/her employer to make sure that the chosen field of study will contribute to professional advancement. The student should do still do additional research to confirm that he/she will receive a positive return on investment.
5. Conduct research to ensure their chosen institution is reputable school.
Nontraditional students need to do their due diligence to confirm that the school is accredited in the area that they are seeking their degree. Nontraditional students should choose both a reputable school and the one that is most affordable. Students should compare the benefits of schools by not only researching them online but also calling to speak with an admissions representative to be sure that the culture of the school is in alignment with who they are and what they are seeking in a college education.
How Colleges are Helping Nontraditional Students
Attending college as a nontraditional student may feel overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. Countless campus-based and online colleges offer specific resources to help these students balance all their responsibilities while furthering their educations.
Charter Oak State College
COSC is a great example of how colleges and universities can work with nontraditional students who already have credits from prior learning but lack a degree. Rather than requiring transfer student to complete a large number of courses at the institution to graduate, Charter Oak only requires learners to complete six credits comprising a cornerstone class and a capstone class. While not every nontraditional student can attend COSC, finding a program that’s flexible about existing credits could mean the difference in whether they’ll need to retake classes.
Southern Illinois University
Approximately 75 percent of all students at SIU are balancing school with outside life responsibilities, and the institution has risen to the occasion to help those who have a lot on their plates. In addition to mentorships, adult students can also take advantage of networking opportunities, help finding assistantships, regularly-scheduled events, and a dedicated space for studying and socializing. Even if your school doesn’t have these resources in place, consider asking them to implement some of the ideas to create a more well-rounded experience for nontraditional learners.
Weber State University
Aside from providing highly affordable childcare, the Nontraditional Student Center at WSU offers a computer lab, full-service kitchen, and study area to help adult students have a place to work and also connect with other nontraditional learners. Students can also take advantage of individualized math tutoring or be assigned an advisor/mentor. While these services may not be earmarked specifically for nontraditional students, lots of campuses offer similar resources to help students succeed.
Check out these guides for more information on adult learners: