What Is a Nontraditional Student?

What Is a Nontraditional Student?
portrait of Hannah Muniz
By Hannah Muniz

Published on July 20, 2020

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If asked to describe the typical college student, most people would probably think of a young adult who lives on campus and pays for their tuition with help from their parents.

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

So what exactly does this mean? The answer is more complicated than you may think.

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Nontraditional Student 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, 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 from high school or those who attend college on a part-time basis are considered nontraditional.
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, or 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, you would count as a nontraditional college student.

If you meet at least one of the above criteria, you'll fall under the nontraditional student umbrella in the eyes of the U.S. government.

But many schools have their own definitions of nontraditional students. Whereas some colleges maintain stricter criteria, others permit students to self-identify as nontraditional.

In addition to the three categories listed above, here are some factors that institutions and organizations have used to determine nontraditional student status:

Commute Time to Campus: Students who commute a particular distance to campus, such as more than 10 miles, may be considered nontraditional. Living Situation: Some schools consider all students who do not live on campus or in university housing nontraditional. Age: Typically, students who start college at age 25 or older are labeled nontraditional. College Experience: Those who went to college previously but did not complete their degree are often considered nontraditional transfer students. Family History: Though less common, a school may refer to first-generation college students as nontraditional students. Income: If you or your family makes under a certain amount of money each year, your school may categorize you as a nontraditional student.

Ultimately, the school you attend will determine whether you are a nontraditional student or not.

Key Challenges Facing Nontraditional Students

Nontraditional college students often face more challenges than traditional students. Below are some of the biggest hurdles nontraditional students 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 go to work, attend classes, take care of your children, study, and sleep — all within 24 hours — can feel impossible for busy nontraditional students.

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 2019 Trends in College Pricing report, the average cost of tuition at public, four-year institutions is $10,440 for in-state students and $26,820 for out-of-state students. Private universities are even more expensive, costing an average of $36,880 per year.

Those who have 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, schedules, grades, and other vital updates. 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.

Most likely, you'll also 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 remote or online classes).

Finding Self-Confidence

Most nontraditional students are older than their more traditional 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 sharing similar experiences.

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4 Tips for Choosing a College as a Nontrad

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.

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.

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 targeting 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 special employer sponsorship programs for workers who want to hone or develop certain skills.

Lastly, don't forget to apply for financial aid by filling out 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.

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 school, check that it offers what you're looking for in a school 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.

Resources for Nontraditional Students

A list of top colleges where nontraditional students are known to thrive.

A look at the best schools for adult learners, with a handy list of scholarships for nontraditional students.

This organization offers research assistance, holds annual conferences, and hosts scholarship competitions for nontraditional students.

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