What is a Non-Traditional Student?
You can find many definitions for nontraditional or delayed-entry students. Most agree that these are students who:
- Did not enroll in college straight out of high school
- Are usually 24 or older
- Generally attend part-time for at least part of the academic year
- Work full-time (35+ hours a week)
- Are considered financially independent for financial aid purposes
- Have dependents other than a spouse (children or are caregivers to sick or elderly family members)
- Single parents
- Military veterans
Recent data reveals that as few as 16% of college students today fit the so-called “traditional” mold: 18-22 year-olds, financially dependent on parents, in college full time, and living on campus. Kinda makes me wonder if I’m the new “traditional” student.
Problems & Solutions
I went back to college at 43 and found college was very different from what I experienced at 17. I was different too. I discovered challenges as an adult student that I never encountered as a traditional college-age student. While there were distinct advantages returning as an adult, there were also problems. Here are some of them and how I solved them.
1. Doubts and fears about your ability to do academic work at the college level.
SOLUTION: Express your concerns to your Academic Advisor and ask about support services. Many colleges have resources such as free tutoring, help with writing, and classes on how to study effectively.
SOLUTION: Talk with your professors to clarify their expectations.
2. You are a first-generation student (one or both parents does not have a college degree) and are unfamiliar with college procedures and processes.
SOLUTION: Look into the TRIO Program and get a TRIO Advisor. You’ll receive services specifically for first-generation students and information about scholarships.
SOLUTION: Ask your Academic Advisor for support and a referral to the TRIO offices on your campus (or the nearest campus even if it’s at another school).
SOLUTION: Ask your Academic Advisor and/or the Office for Adult Education/External Degree Program for a Degree Audit. This document is a roadmap that tells you exactly what courses you need, how long it will take you to finish your degree, and how much it’s going to cost. If you don’t get a copy of your Degree Audit, be persistent and request it in writing! Ask for an updated Degree Audit at the end of each semester.
3. Difficulty with Monday-Friday, 9-5 office hours of professors, career and counseling centers, financial aid office, etc.
SOLUTION: Ask your Advisor or the head of the Adult Education Office/External Degree Program how you can connect with campus resources and visit the college website for a list of available resources.
SOLUTION: Make contact early with your professors. Express your concerns and ask them to schedule meetings with you by phone, Skype, Google Chat, FaceTime, or after hours.
SOLUTION: Use email to communicate. Putting things in writing is ALWAYS a good idea.
SOLUTION: Colleges expect you to advocate for yourself and you can expect to do a lot of this!
4. When a required course is only offered during work hours on campus, it can be challenging to get time off from work to attend class.
SOLUTION: Take online classes or hybrid courses (blend of on-ground and online class delivery). Some courses are also offered as weekend intensives or in the evening. If your college does not provide alternatives, inquire as to whether you can take the class at another school and have the credits transfer. Many schools have arrangements in place with other local colleges.
SOLUTION: Look to Adult Degree Program offerings. Many times classes are held on weekends and in the evenings, online, or as hybrid courses. I chose my college specifically because it had an Adult Degree Program.
5. Responsibilities outside of educational activities including family and job.
SOLUTION: Change your schedule to carve out specific time to study and let your family know that this is necessary for you to be successful. Set boundaries about interruptions and distractions.
SOLUTION: Set up a quiet space in your home where you can study. Preferably, a room with a door you can close. I put up a sign on my door staying “Unless it’s an emergency, DON’T OPEN THIS DOOR! I’m studying. Is YOUR homework done?”
SOLUTION: Ask for more help from your spouse/partner and children with household chores. If you have the financial ability, you might consider hiring someone to help.
SOLUTION: Make time for self-care! Do whatever refreshes and energizes you. For me, that’s drumming, skiing, or swimming at a local waterfall.
Advantages to Being a NonTrad
What? There are advantages? Yes, indeed there are. I found I had a passion for school and learning that I didn’t have when I went to college at 17.
- You are returning to school with real-world experience that benefits you in class discussions.
- You can utilize this real-world experience to enrich your academic work including research and writing.
- Working full time makes studying feel like a refreshing break.
- Returning students are more focused, disciplined, motivated, and goal-oriented than students who are only attending because their parents want them to.
- You’re fully invested in the process and outcome (financially and in your time commitment).
What to Look for in a School
Nontraditional students have very different needs that not every school addresses. When you’re looking at colleges and programs, be sure to consider:
- Specific services for adult students including extended office hours, evening classes, childcare facilities, financial advising, and a learning environment that supports all styles of learning.
- Online or hybrid/blended course delivery.
- Accelerated or compressed terms.
- Adult-friendly policies.
- Supportive credit transfers.
- Assessment of Prior Learning credit.
- CLEP test credit.
- A culture that values and supports nontraditional students.
We’d love to hear from other nontraditional students about your experiences, problems, and work-around solutions. Drop us a note in the comments and share your wisdom with other nontrads! If you’ve got a question instead, let me know and I’ll do my best to give you an answer.
Next week I’ll be writing about ways nontraditional students can pay for college.