Nontraditional Students

Nontraditional Students

Why It's Important

Much of the language we use to refer to college students still carries assumptions about this diverse group.

According to a 2015 report by the National Center for Education Statistics,1 74% of all U.S. undergraduates possessed characteristics that could qualify them as “nontraditional” by typical definitions during the 2011-2012 academic year. Some of these characteristics included being a caregiver, starting school over the age of 25, working full time while attending school, attending school part time, and not having a high school diploma.

When language for and about students fails to consider these populations, large groups of people and their experiences are excluded.


While much of the attention on ageism focuses on bias and discrimination against older adults, young people also face ageism, including ageist language.2 Young people are also unprotected by federal workplace anti-discrimination laws (which only protect older workers)3 even though a 2019 Glassdoor survey4 found more younger people experience ageism in the workplace than older people.

Take care not to imply that postsecondary students are not adults, as most are over the age of 18. By implying that students in the 18-24 age bracket aren’t adults, we subtly disempower and delegitimize these students’ voices and agency.

Don't Use

Mature students

Avoid this term as a replacement for "older students," as it implies that age and maturity-level are synonymous.

Seniors, Senior citizens, the elderly

Avoid these terms, as they are often offensive to older populations5

Use Caution

Adult students

Avoid using the phrase "adult students" in the context of postsecondary education to refer to students over the age of 24, as this usage implies that students aged 18-24 are not adults.

Do Use

Older adults, older students

Use in place of "seniors" or "the elderly" as a general term to describe an older population.


When discussing formerly or currently incarcerated students, be mindful of the language you use. Avoid terms that can perpetuate stigma like “ex-offender,” “criminal,” and “ex-con.” Instead, use phrases like “returning citizen” and “formerly incarcerated person.”

Socioeconomic Status

While there is no universal definition for who exactly counts as a “nontraditional student,” several characteristics related to socioeconomic status are often included. Young adults who are financially independent from their parents, those experiencing homelessness, and first-generation college students (students whose parents either did not attend or did not graduate from a postsecondary institution) may be considered nontraditional students.

Try to use language that is inclusive of all economic situations and backgrounds.

Example: If writing a tip list, be careful about giving advice — like “hire a tutor” — that might apply only to students with the means to pay for that service.

Example: If promoting an event, include the cost in all announcements, as well as information about any available fee waivers or sliding scale payment options.


While we tend to think of college students as young adults often supported by their parents, students of many ages may also be parents themselves. Try to avoid discussing students and parents as two mutually exclusive categories.

Avoid Saying

mothers, fathers


Consider Replacing With

parent, parents

parents and guardians

Why This Matters

Use "parent" as a gender-neutral default in many cases.

This phrase includes many different types of family units.

Veterans and Service Members

One way to take care when discussing veterans and service members is to learn about the different types of military service, if this is unfamiliar to you.

Use “veterans and service members” instead of just “veterans” or “service members” unless you intend to refer to just the veteran or service member populations individually.

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  1. National Center for Education Statistics. (2015, September). Demographic and enrollment characteristics of nontraditional undergraduates: 2011-12.
  2. Yin, K. (2017, December 7). Young people and ageist language: Changing our attitudes toward children. Conscious Style Guide.
  3. U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. (n.d.). Age discrimination. Retrieved January 27, 2022, from
  4. Glassdoor. (2019, October 23). Glassdoor survey finds three in five U.S. employees have experienced or witnessed discrimination based on age, race, gender, or LGBTQ identity at work. Cision: PR Newswire.
  5. Pinsker, J. (2020, January 27). When does someone become 'old'?. The Atlantic.