The Best Colleges for Non-Traditional Students

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by Staff Writers
Published on September 21, 2020 is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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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?

The College of Idaho View School Profile ,

The College of Idaho offers a PEAK program, allowing a student to graduate with a major and three minors in the same time. This approach is great for non-traditional students as it enables them to become proficient in a wider range of subjects, while not making further demands on their time than the four years a typical institution requires.

Maharishi University of Management View School Profile ,

The Maharishi University of Management pride themselves on their elevated quality of life, providing sustainable organic produce in their vegetarian kitchen, giving opportunities to meditate on campus, and allowing the students to focus on their studies one at a time. For a non-traditional student trying to juggle work and school, this relaxed pace could be the perfect choice.

Evergreen State College View School Profile ,

Evergreen State College enables students to pick their own program of study. They discard the traditional grading system in favor of applied learning. For a non-traditional student, this provides the unique opportunity to devise a singular program of study, making the Evergreen State graduate stand out from the crowd.

College of the Atlantic View School Profile ,

College of the Atlantic offers just one major which is human ecology. Through interdisciplinary classes, students apply their learning to a large-scale project that they will complete before graduation. The interdisciplinary approach enables a non-traditional student to gain applicable knowledge right out of the gate, which they can utilize immediately in their present occupation.

Naropa University View School Profile ,

Naropa University was founded by a Tibetan monk and leans heavily on Buddhist teachings as they devise their educational approach. It has resulted in a mingling of arts, Zen, and the pursuit of knowledge. This non-traditional school would be perfect for a non-traditional student.

Goucher College View School Profile ,

Goucher College, the only college in the country to do so, requires an abroad study to equip her graduates with a multicultural experience. Providing instruction from other perspectives enables students to be better rounded and more open minded. This gives non-traditional students a great opportunity, both for personally edification and coveted resume content.

St. John’s College View School Profile ,

St. John’s College is firmly planted in academics, requiring all students to take four years of language, math, and interdisciplinary studies, and three year of science. However, this college takes a refreshing break from homework and instead places emphasis on discussions. As many non-traditional students already have real life experiences, they'll find such discussion particularly stimulating.

Antioch College View School Profile ,

Antioch College makes mandatory cooperative education, requiring their students to regularly alternate between course work and full-time work. Doing so ensures that the graduates of this college are capable of living and working productively in whatever community they find themselves.

Alverno College View School Profile ,

Alverno College, in their relentless endeavor to provide society with high functioning, successful individuals, discard grades in favor of evaluating their students based on their person. Instead of GPA, the college provides a transcript describing each student's person, growth, and achievements. For a non-traditional student, the lack of necessity to pursue grades so they might pursue learning comes with a sigh of relief.

Olin College View School Profile ,

Olin College has devised an educational program for engineering students with the intention of molding them into individuals who look for needs, solutions to those, and edify the world in their endeavors. They do this by focusing the studies of each student around a large-scale project. All students receive half scholarship, which makes this a financially wise choice for non-traditional students.

Berea College View School Profile ,

Berea College maintains their status of social pioneers, which they've earned through their rich history. (Berea College was the first college in the South to become interracial and also the first college to be co-ed.) They're committed to providing quality education to promising individuals with financial hardships, offering free tuition to those who work on campus for 10 hours a week.

Thomas Edison State College View School Profile ,

Thomas Edison State College is an ideal choice for non-traditional students. For the self-motivated learners, like Thomas Edison himself, this college's distance education program, equipped with five different formats specifically engineered to compliment a wide range of learning styles, is perfect for any non-traditional student.

Whitman College View School Profile ,

Whitman College located in Historic Walla Walla, Washington offers 45 majors. They have many scholarships available, including one specifically for a non-traditional student at $5,000. Their comprehensive exams which must be passed in order to graduation ensure their students have learned the information well.

Beloit College View School Profile ,

Beloit College prioritizes applied learning and seeks to embody a education style that changes lives and motivates it students so that they might, in turn, change and motivate the world. Their flexible curriculum makes this an excellent choice for non-traditional students.

Austin College View School Profile ,

Austin College having unique study abroad programs allowing students to find just the program they're looking for. Consequently, more than 70% of students utilize this opportunity. Furthermore, their low student to faculty ratio ensures that the non-traditional student won't get lost in the crowd.

Allegheny College View School Profile ,

Allegheny College, requiring their students to select both a major and a minor from different fields, develops well rounded students who can then apply their learning in either their major or minor or find a specific niche that incorporates both. Non-traditional students, especially those with a career already in hand, can combine unusual disciplines to optimize themselves for their position.

Colorado College View School Profile ,

Colorado College divides their semesters into eight sessions. With one class per session, projects, homework, and attention do not need to be juggled. This format allows classes to be completed in a short period of time, so it's perfect for the non-traditional students just interested in taking a class or two.

Eckerd College View School Profile ,

Eckerd College proudly offers to non-traditional students their Program for Experienced Learners. This program has been designed with the working adult in mind. Their eight week courses are available in the evenings and on the weekends. The wide offering of courses allows them to meet any students scheduling needs.

Hampshire College View School Profile ,

Hampshire College, encouraging students to make educated decisions, spends the first year of schooling delving into various schools of thought, their second year focusing on one, and their third year, they begin working on a large-scale project. Part of a five college consortium, this small college has an impressive number of resources, classes, and opportunities available to her students, as they can utilize the other colleges in the consortium.

Bennington College View School Profile ,

Bennington College, with plans like the Low-Residency Format of the MFA in Writing, where students spend two 10 day intensive studies on campus and the rest of the year is spent out in the world, has unique programs of study for any lifestyle. Non-traditional students should look into each of these programs to find the one specific to their needs.

Brown University View School Profile ,

Brown University, although part of the Ivy League, is structured very differently from the others. Part of a student's responsibility is to devise a curriculum for themselves with assistance from the advisers. With the number of resources Brown has to offer, the possibilities are endless, providing a truly unique educational experience.

New College of Florida View School Profile ,

New College of Florida, slightly different from the other colleges that allow a personal plan of study, has their students sign seven contracts for each semester when they've settled on a plan. After the period, advisers check to see if the terms of the contract were fulfilled, providing students with a narrative evaluation instead of grades.

College of Wooster View School Profile ,

College of Wooster pairs students with faculty members. Students then work with their faculty partner to focus on either a thesis or a large scale project to work on during the course of their studies. And with over 120 student organizations, any non-traditional student will be able to find an extracurricular activity that meets their needs and gets them involved in the college community.

Smith College View School Profile ,

Smith College offers non-traditional students an opportunity to be Ada Comstock Scholars, named after a pioneer in education, the first woman to be an academic dean and the first woman to be the president of a college. With over 1,000 courses to choose from at Smith, in addition to any course offered by the four other area colleges, the perfect plan of study for any student is available.

Bard College View School Profile ,

Bard College gives high school sophomores to seniors the chance to take college classes before they would traditionally be able to do so. While non-traditional students are traditionally adult learners, such students seeking to start scholarly work sooner certainly fall under this term, as well.

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.

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