What Is a Nontraditional Student?

What is a nontraditional student? Discover the various nontraditional student definitions as well as the biggest challenges these learners face.
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  • Nearly three-fourths of U.S. college students can be considered nontraditional.
  • The nontraditional student definition isn't set in stone and varies across institutions.
  • Challenges facing nontrads today include high tuition costs and balancing school and work.
  • Prospective nontrads should prioritize colleges offering flexibility and affordability.

Most people would probably picture the typical college student as a young adult who lives on campus and pays for their education with help from their parents or guardians.

But not all students look like this. In fact, nontraditional students make up the majority of postsecondary students in the U.S. A 2015 study by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) found that 74% of college students could be considered nontraditional.

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But what exactly does this mean? And are you considered a nontraditional student?

What Is a Nontraditional Student? Basic Definition

There's no easy way to define a nontraditional student. While some colleges consider all students above a certain age nontraditional, others look at factors such as income level, marital status, and/or whether a student earned a high school diploma.

NCES defines a nontraditional college student using three main criteria:

  • Enrollment Patterns

    When and how you enroll at a college can determine whether you're a traditional or nontraditional student. Those who enroll one or more years after graduating high school or those who attend college on a part-time basis are considered nontraditional by NCES.

  • Financial and Family Status

    Traits relating to family and money that NCES considers nontraditional include having one or more dependent children, being a single parent, working a full-time job while in school, and being financially independent.

  • High School Graduation Status

    If you received a GED certificate or other high school equivalency diploma instead of a regular high school diploma, NCES would consider you a nontraditional college student.

Meeting at least one of the above criteria would make you a nontraditional student in the eyes of the U.S. government.

Additional Nontraditional Student Definitions

Even with the NCES guidelines above, many schools have their own definition of nontraditional student. Whereas some colleges maintain stricter criteria, others permit students to self-identify as nontraditional.

Here are some examples of these alternative nontraditional student definitions:

  • Commute Time: Students who commute a certain distance to campus, such as more than 10 miles
  • Living Situation: Students who do not live on campus or in university housing
  • Age: Students who start college at age 25 or older
  • College Experience: Those who went to college previously but did not complete their degree
  • Family History: First-generation college students are sometimes considered nontraditional
  • Income: Students who make or whose families make under a certain amount of money each year

Key Challenges Facing Nontraditional Students

Nontraditional college students often face more challenges than traditional students. Below are some of the biggest hurdles nontrads must work to overcome.

Balancing School, Life, and Work

For many traditional students, going to college is a full-time job. But nontraditional students — many of whom are older and more established — must deal with additional obstacles when it comes to balancing their academic endeavors with their personal and professional obligations.

Finding the time to work, attend classes, take care of your children, study, and sleep — all within 24 hours — can feel impossible for busy nontrads.

Financing a College Education

Like many traditional students, nontraditional students often worry about whether they can afford a college education. After all, college is a huge investment.

According to the College Board's 2020 Trends in College Pricing report, the average tuition cost at public four-year institutions is $10,560 for in-state students and $27,020 for out-of-state students. Private universities are even more expensive, costing an average of $37,650 per year.

Those with children or other family members to care for may find it especially difficult to pay for their education.

Learning Modern Technology

Technology is constantly evolving. If you've been out of school for a long time, you may be surprised by how different college is today — especially in terms of the technology students are expected to know how to use.

For example, most schools rely on learning management systems such as Blackboard and Canvas to disseminate information on course requirements, assignments, syllabi, and grades. Having a rough sense of how to work these systems can help you adapt faster to your academic program and your new life as a student.

You'll also likely be expected to have reliable internet access, a fully functional computer with programs like Microsoft Word and PowerPoint, and a webcam (should you opt for online classes).

Finding Confidence

Many nontraditional students are older than their peers, which can make them feel awkward and out of place. As a nontrad, you should try to maintain a high level of self-confidence so that you can succeed in your academic pursuits and learn to take pride in your identity as a student.

Age is irrelevant — you are never too old to learn, change careers, or follow your passion. It's also worth reminding yourself that nontraditional learners account for the majority of college students, so many of your peers are likely sharing similar experiences.

4 Tips for Choosing a College as a Nontrad

Before enrolling, prospective nontraditional students should ensure their college of choice offers flexibility, affordability, and an overall welcoming atmosphere.

1. Prioritize Flexibility

Balancing school, work, and family might sound impossible — but it doesn't have to be. Look for programs that offer plenty of scheduling flexibility. For example, you might prefer a program with rolling start dates or night and weekend classes.

Additionally, you may want to prioritize accelerated programs so that you can complete your bachelor's degree in less than four years.

2. Consider an Online Program

Despite their sometimes negative reputation, online college programs can be just as good as, if not better than, in-person programs. What's particularly great about online learning is that you can fit classes into your daily routine without worrying about commuting to campus or paying for childcare.

3. Make Sure It's Affordable

Tuition varies widely at colleges. If you're on a tight budget, try to prioritize state schools over out-of-state or private schools. It's also a good idea to search for institutions that provide scholarships for nontraditional students (or any other identity you may have).

Another option is to see whether your employer will cover all or part of your education. Some companies, especially larger corporations, maintain employer sponsorship programs for workers who want to hone or develop certain skills.

Lastly, don't forget to apply for financial aid by filing the FAFSA. No matter their age, credit score, or enrollment status (i.e., part time vs. full time), students may be eligible for federal loans and grants.

4. Look for Welcoming Environments

Some schools cater to nontraditional students better than others by offering benefits like career services, family housing, and student groups specifically geared toward nontraditional learners. Before you apply to a college, check that it offers what you're looking for in a campus environment.

For example, if you have a small child, you might strongly prioritize a college that provides on-campus childcare. Additionally, if you want to make friends with others experiencing a similar situation, you might search for institutions with a nontraditional student group you could join.


Feature Image: Westend61 / Getty Images

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