College students have long been thought of as recent high school graduates who live on or close to campus, participate in clubs, attend campus-related sporting events and socialize on the weekends.
But today’s college enrollees don’t necessarily fit that mold. Many are balancing coursework with other responsibilities, including a full-time job or parenting, and are in their mid-20s or older.
“Today’s students are being asked to juggle a lot,” says Kermit Kaleba, strategy director of employment-aligned credential programs for the Lumina Foundation, an Indiana-based organization that promotes educational access. “Some institutions kind of stand there with them. But I think there are other institutions that are probably less well-equipped because they have always thought of themselves as serving a particular type of student.”
What Is a Nontraditional Student?
College students may be classified as “nontraditional” because of their age or employment status, or because they have one or more dependents, are independent for financial aid, are enrolled part time or don’t have a traditional high school diploma, among other reasons, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
But some experts hesitate to call these students “nontraditional,” as the current landscape of higher education is no longer overwhelmingly 18- to 24-year-olds recently out of high school.
“We, and nontraditional students themselves, should continue to push back on the idea that they are nontraditional because they are actually not. They are very close to being the majority of students,” says Christopher J. Nellum, executive director of The Education Trust–West, a nonprofit education equity organization.
Thirty-seven percent of college students are 25 or older, while 24% have children or other dependents, according to data from the Lumina Foundation.
“It’s valuable to have someone, who maybe is a little bit older or has a dependent, in a classroom,” Nellum says. “They’ll ask different questions. They will push the professors to think differently about their work. Having them on our campuses is a value add.”
Barriers to College Completion
Most colleges are not designed for nontraditional students, many of whom face barriers to degree completion, experts say.
“If you’re going to an institution where most of your fellow students are younger and don’t have the same life experiences, I think it can sometimes be challenging to feel like you fit in,” Kaleba says. “I think colleges are getting better at sort of understanding that there’s a diverse range of learners that are coming to their institutions. But again, it’s hard to change habits.”
Though experiences vary, here are examples of challenges faced by students who have children, are employed full time or are military veterans — all considered nontraditional.
College students with children have high college dropout rates: 52% of student parents leave school within six years without obtaining a degree, according to a 2021 Institute of Women’s Policy Research report. This is attributed to several factors, including child care access.
The percentage of public colleges offering child care services decreased from 59% in 2004 to 45% in 2019, with the largest drop — 17% — at community colleges, according to IWPR.
Cost is another significant barrier. Families in the U.S. pay an average of $10,000 annually for infant, toddler or 4-year-old center-based child care, the same report found.
However, some schools are trying to reduce those barriers. Wilson College in Pennsylvania, for example, established the Single Parent Scholar Program, which provides campus housing and subsidized child care to eligible single parents.
Most college students are employed — 40% have a full-time job, according to the Lumina Foundation — which limits their time to take classes and complete homework assignments.
Experts advise students with time constraints to research schools that have flexible class times and that offer several types of learning models, including in-person, hybrid or totally online classes.
“Your family comes first, your work comes first,” Kaleba says. “Education has to fit into that paradigm instead of being the central part of how you organize your schedule, unless you have the flexibility to make those changes.”
Veterans or Active-Duty Military
According to Lumina data, 6% of college students serve or have served in the U.S. armed forces.
Like other students who may be returning to college or enrolling for the first time, acclimating to campus life for veterans may be especially challenging, experts say. To help with the transition, some schools offer support services specifically for veterans.
The University of South Florida, for instance, has an Office of Veteran Success, which helps veterans and active-duty military navigate state education benefits and career readiness. It also offers peer-to-peer support.
“Finding people and building relationships with people who have had similar experiences is also a key to success,” says Marnie Hauser, director of the Office of Orientation at USF.
What to Know Before Enrolling in College
Before choosing a college, nontraditional students should make an “honest assessment of what they are looking for from an educational experience and what they can fit in their current lives,” Kaleba says.
Experts advise nontraditional students to ask questions throughout the application process, including whether they would qualify for priority registration or what kind of support services are available on campus. Most colleges have a library, career services and a financial aid office, but not all schools provide resources to help with child care, transportation or basic needs insecurities.
Additionally, nontraditional students should remember that a bachelor’s degree at a four-year institution is not the only option. Depending on their career goals, students can seek out an associate degree or shorter-term, industry-recognized credentials and certificates.
“Based on what it is that you’re trying to get to, the reason why you’re going back to school, there may be a range of educational options that you should consider — some of which are more valuable than others,” Kaleba says. “A lot of students are looking for something that can give them skills and competencies to quickly get back into the labor market or into the next rung of the ladder at their current job.”
Once enrolled, don’t be afraid to ask for help both inside and outside the classroom.
Make sure that faculty and administrators are aware of the challenges you’re facing, such as needing child care support, transportation, food or housing assistance, or test-taking accommodations, Kaleba says.
“I’ve definitely heard anecdotally a lot of students are very uncomfortable with taking assistance because they feel like somebody might need this more than they do,” he says. “But the reason why those services are there is to be taken advantage of, and students should take advantage of what services they can. The most important thing is to be able to get that education and get the credential or the degree that they’re looking for.”
But don’t try to bite off more than you can chew, Hauser says. “If this is something that is daunting for you and you’re trying to get started again after taking a big break from being in the classroom, start off slow. That’s OK. You can always ramp up later. But realize that we’re here as an institution to support you and we’re here to advocate for you.”
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