Returning to higher learning after a long layoff can pose many unique challenges. Fortunately, a lot of schools — including the ones featured in this guide — do a good job of helping nontraditional college students make successful transitions back into the physical or virtual classroom. This guide also contains information about available learning options, how to determine whether or not you qualify for federal financial aid, and other useful tips for nontraditional learners.
The methodology used to determine the following ranking incorporates both statistics and the opinions of experts in the industry. Additionally, we included surveys from students reporting on their level of satisfaction with their educational experiences as nontraditional learners.
What Are The Best Colleges for Non-Traditional Students?
What Is Considered a Nontraditional Student?
The phrase "nontraditional college student" refers to a diverse demographic group. In the most general sense, nontraditional learners include anyone who did not enroll in college shortly or immediately after completing high school.
Nontraditional college students often hold jobs, family responsibilities, and/or other outside commitments that present scheduling and life balance challenges. Nontraditional students may also prefer alternative learning environments, such as self-paced programs or the ability to earn credits based on their personal and professional experiences.
Why Should Students Choose Nontraditional College Routes?
It's estimated that 5%-18% of learners suffer from anxiety. While the causes of anxiety vary widely, many students feel intimidated by grades and tests in school, causing them undue stress. Some nontraditional students might do better at a college without the traditional A-F grading system. Pass/fail grading rubrics can reduce the stress over each assignment and enable students to focus on their overall course experience and success.
- Study Options
For students who struggle with the thought of picking just one major and one career path for life, a nontraditional college offering interdisciplinary study options might better serve their needs. Some schools allow students to pick a "focus" to their studies and tailor their class schedule according to their preferences, rather than simply following a predesigned major chosen from the school's course catalog.
- Location Variety
Some nontraditional students may feel like they learn more about life and themselves while on the move. These individuals may not want to stay tied down to the same college for four years. Learners in this category should consider enrolling at a college that maintains multiple campuses and a strong emphasis on international study abroad programs.
- Practical Work Experience
People who prefer learning by doing should seek out a college that emphasizes real-world experience through internships and mentorships with professionals. While vocational schools serve the needs of some nontraditional students, those looking to blend academia with work experience may benefit from a school offering programs with an emphasis on hands-on learning.
Why Do Adults Go Back to College?
Adults return to college for many reasons. Some seek to finish degrees they started earlier in life or decide to pursue their passions after spending time in jobs or career paths they ultimately found unfulfilling. Another common reason relates to career advancement and earning potential; many nontraditional college students want to upgrade to higher degrees, obtain a degree in a different subject, or retrain for a higher-paying profession.
The improved flexibility and accessibility of higher education represents another big draw for adult learners. The advent of online learning has made it possible to earn a degree without ever setting foot on a traditional campus; this may be especially appealing to mature students seeking to balance their studies with existing commitments.
Can Nontraditional Students Get Financial Aid?
Nontraditional college students enjoy access to many forms of financial aid, including federal and private student loans. However, personal finance experts generally recommend that degree-seekers exhaust all other financial aid options before considering private loans, as government-issued loans usually offer more favorable repayment terms and other protections and benefits related to deferment and forbearance.
Scholarships and grants represent other appealing options, as these forms of financial aid do not require repayment. Some programs may have age cutoffs, while others remain open to applicants of all ages. You can also seek out scholarships and grants specifically intended for nontraditional and adult students. To learn more about various forms of financial aid, visit this helpful resource.
What Is the Age Cutoff for the FAFSA?
For many students, the search for financial aid begins by filing out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). After submitting the FAFSA, the office of Federal Student Aid automatically evaluates your eligibility for all forms of federal financial aid, and learners of all ages enjoy equal access to funding.
Nontraditional and adult students who fill out the FAFSA must adhere to the same processes and deadlines as all other students. You can also generate an estimate of how much aid you should qualify for by using the federal government's FAFSA4caster tool. To learn more about financial aid, visit our overview on the topic.