Who Are Today’s Nontraditional Students?

According to the NCES, about 73% of students enrolled in higher education fit into a broader definition of nontraditional student. While some characteristics of the current evolving and multifaceted student group are similar to previous generations, they have distinct, individual, and pressing needs. Therefore, a better understanding of these nontraditional students will help better target our efforts and programs to meet their needs at our universities and colleges.

Definitions of Nontraditional Students

The most basic definition of a nontraditional student is one who is over the age of 24. Other common characteristics are working full time and having children. But using a broader definition may be more helpful at this juncture, as the variations will make a difference in how to approach members of this group. Suppose we suggest that the definition of a traditional student is one who graduates high school, enrolls the following fall in college, and is dependent on their parents. In that case, we can start to formulate some features that could define a nontraditional student. A nontraditional college student may have one or more of the following characteristics:

  • They graduated high school at least one year prior to enrolling in college.
  • They have a GED or other certificate instead of a traditional diploma.
  • They have a full-time job.
  • They have dependents other than a spouse.
  • They enroll in college part-time.
  • They are financially independent of their parents.

Many Reasons for Higher Education Enrollment: Pandemic, Recession, Divorce

We can further divide these students into categories based on other factors. For instance, during the 2007-8 recession, many laid off from jobs decided to finish degrees and shift their careers. During the pandemic, the same happened for some people, though many had to enroll in online programs while most campuses remained closed.

Some people who go through a divorce must make a living after being dependent on a spouse, so they return to school to get ready for the workforce. Other life changes like children going off to college, elder parents dying, or a family business closure can send people to get more education. A change in the family, caregiving, or employment status can trigger enrollment in various ways.

Another big group of nontraditional students is people who have served in the military. They or their spouses may use military benefits to get more credentials during or after their service. Service members who are stationed overseas or may move frequently can be well-served by distance education programs, allowing them to study while they serve or follow a spouse on active duty. Veterans may have training or experience they can transfer into a degree program, so transfer credit options are essential for this group.

Age and Stage in Life

A growing group of nontraditional students is those in their late 20s. The reasons are multifaceted, including a delay in enrolling in college, longer completion times for students who end up working or taking care of family members, difficulty finding a job, newer online learning options, and now, delayed enrollment because of the pandemic.

Older nontraditional students have similar reasons and life changes that may spark their entry into school. One in ten college students is currently over 40 years old, yet predictions are that this group will grow to 3.3 million by 2027. This group is more established in their lives, either personal or professional, and may be looking to jump-start their career prospects, increase their earning potential, or switch careers entirely. In addition, they may be enrolling in continuing education, which can include certificate and graduate degree programs.

Some older adults retire and decide to use their time to complete a degree that they didn’t finish when they were young. For these returning students, it could be an early retirement that allows them to try a career they always wanted or get a credential for a sense of accomplishment. Many schools feature stories of elder students earning degrees in their 70s or 80s, as these seem unusual, yet this demographic of older students may be less uncommon in current conditions.

An overlooked group of part-time college students is high school students participating in dual enrollment programs to get a jump on college. Increasingly, these can include career training to help these students transition more quickly and successfully into the workforce.

Equity for Nontraditional Students

If we look at financially independent students, which is a large percentage of nontraditional students, the statistics on equity are striking. A recent report helps us picture this group: 80% are enrolled part-time, 43% have dependent children, 28% are single parents, and 41% work full time. Between 70-80% of this group are enrolled at broad access or non-selective schools, with an average spending per student less than 1/3 of the amount spent by highly selective institutions. They have high levels of unmet financial need, half will not receive a degree within six years, and most will have high student debt.

Equity statistics continue the wake-up call for all higher education professionals, signaling that we need to find ways to serve our nontraditional students better. We must do better at raising graduation rates, providing and publicizing financial aid options, offering student support services that are more accessible to this population, and offering programs and services that are more appropriate to the variety of situations in the lives of these students.

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