Non-Traditional college students are becoming traditional

Higher education is full of traditions — everything from a hundred thousand people dancing to “jump around” on Saturdays in the fall to thousands of juniors wearing straw hats to celebrate “hey day”.

But most students can’t participate in such traditions. About 74% of students are in some way “non-traditional” . That is, for every traditional student there are three non-traditional students. For every student dancing in a football stadium in the fall, there’s one working a full time job, another taking care of their child, and a third caring for a disabled family member.

According to the National Center of Education Statistics (NCES) if a student possesses one or more of the following characteristics he/she could be considered non-traditional:

  • Delayed enrollment into post-secondary school
  • Attends college part-time
  • Works full-time
  • Financially independent for financial aid purposes
  • Has dependents other than a spouse
  • Is a single parent
  • Doesn’t have a high school diploma

Many students meet multiple characteristics; 31% of all students have two or three of the above. These students also tend to be older, 25% are over 30. This is changing the face of higher education.

This is not a bad thing. Non-traditional students are highly motivated. They understand the value of an education. They have high expectations of school, and a deep desire to achieve. Their life experience enhances the value of higher education.


Even though non-traditional is becoming the new normal, the system hasn’t evolved to address this. These students often report feeling a lack of “belonging” due to a system that was designed for circumstances different than their own. Given the large numbers of non-traditional students in today’s institutions, especially the influx following the Great Recession, institutes of higher education need to adapt. Institutions of higher learning haven’t changed much in their models to reflect current circumstances and types of learners. Colleges and universities will soon be forced to make significant changes to address the following challenges faced by their students:

System: Students don’t “fit” the current model and it may impact their studies and degree completion suffers.

Financial: Even if these students have access to financial aid, financial aid policies don’t take into account the full picture of their situation: they still must work to support family and dependents, causing significant stress.

Scheduling: Significant demands on their time due to family or work may limit time for meeting with faculty or getting together for study groups.

Family: Childcare demands can cause stress and may effect attendance in class, lectures, meetings, etc.

Lack of support from the institution: The school may not offer flexible class times, faculty hours may be very limited and administrative services office hours may not fit with the students’ schedules.

We’re moving in the right direction

Schools and administrators are beginning to understand the magnitude of these challenges and are starting to make changes. More schools are offering an “Introduction to College” course to help their non-traditional students get acclimated. Others offer online, weekend, evening, accelerated and/or hybrid classes. The advent of technology means a student can access courses anytime; taking a course from any school from anywhere — at home, at work, at the beach or even in a classroom.

That said, the system can do more. Non-traditional students are disproportionately — and unfairly — impacted by policies not built with them in mind. Mandatory attendance policies, unscheduled quizzes, and inflexible assignment submission deadlines all may unduly hurt this population of students.

Something as simple as needing a physical signature on a form — which can likely only be obtained by meeting with an advisor in person, between 9:00am and 5:00pm — can throw a near-insurmountable roadblock in the way of an otherwise excellent student.

Non-traditional students need systematic support to find classes that fit their needs and help them succeed. Schools must do more to make sure that their academic policies aren’t unfairly discriminating against students with jobs, families, and dreams.

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