Best Online Colleges for Nontraditional Students

Check out our guide to the best colleges for adult learners and learn more about going back to school.
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Updated on August 18, 2023
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Returning to higher learning after a long layoff can pose unique challenges. Fortunately, many schools — including many top colleges and universities — do a good job of helping nontraditional college students make successful transitions back into the physical or virtual classroom.

This guide 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 statistics and the opinions of experts in the industry. Additionally, we considered surveys from students reporting on their level of satisfaction with their educational experiences as nontraditional learners.

Frequently Asked Questions From Nontraditional Students

Should I go back to school?

Going back to school can open appealing career and salary opportunities. You can pursue a job in a new industry or leverage your degree to earn advancement in your current field. College degree programs provide crucial training for certain career paths and look good on a resume.

However, returning to college — even part-time, online college — can be a big time commitment. You should honestly assess their current time commitments to work and family before deciding to return to school.

Can I go to school and work at the same time?

Yes, students can work while attending classes. However, students probably can't work full time andattend classes full time. Many students who wish to continue their full-time jobs will need to enroll in a part-time or self-paced program, extending their graduation timeline. Conversely, students who wish to study full time will likely find their work hours significantly impacted. The key for nontraditional students is to strike a balance that works for them.

Are nontraditional students successful in college?

The most successful nontraditional students take time to assess their learning needs and determine how best to balance these against outside obligations before enrolling in a college degree program.

This may include setting up a support system and cutting back on work hours. Nontraditional students should lay out an academic plan and assess how to adjust their current life to accommodate that plan.

Is getting a college degree worth it?

Deciding whether a college degree is worth it depends on the individual person and their career aspirations. Begin by determining what kind of job you want and look into the qualifications you'll need to earn that role. If the job requires a degree, consider if returning to college is right for you.

When considering a return to college, be sure to assess your resources – such as your finances and available time – before making a decision.

When is the FAFSA typically due?

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is typically due at the end of June afterthe school year in which a student needs aid. This application is required for individuals to receive federal financial aid, including federal student loans, work-study opportunities, and grants.

The FAFSA requires detailed financial information from each student to determine how much financial aid they qualify for. Allow plenty of time to gather the required information and fill out the form.

What Is 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, or other outside commitments that may 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 roughly 12% of learners suffer from anxiety. While the causes of anxiety vary widely, many students feel intimidated by grades and tests in school, which can cause undue stress. Some nontraditional students might do better at a college without the traditional A-F grading system. Some programs that cater to older learners may utilize pass/fail grading rubrics. This format can reduce the stress related to individual assignments, enabling students to focus on their overall course experience and success.

Study Options

For students who struggle with the thought of picking just one major or one career path, choosing a nontraditional college that offers 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 in 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 emphasizes international study abroad programs.

Practical Work Experience

People who prefer learning by doing should seek out a college that emphasizes practical 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 that emphasize hands-on learning.

Featured Online Programs

Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.

Why Do Adults Go Back to College?

Older adults return to college for many reasons. Some want to finish degrees they started earlier in life, while others decide to pursue a new passion and change careers. Another common reason relates to career advancement and earning potential. Many nontraditional college students want to upgrade to a graduate degree, obtain a degree in a different subject, or retrain for a higher-paying profession.

What Should You Consider Before Going Back to School?

Going back to school can help people change careers or find advancement in their current field. However, individuals should consider how their lives will change if they decide to return to school.

A bachelor's program typically requires 120 credits. Full-time students taking a regular course load typically graduate within four years. An associate program requires 60 credit hours. Full-time students typically need two years to graduate.

Workers with full-time or part-time careers will need to consider how they will juggle their work with their studies. Individuals with family obligations will also need to adjust their schedules to ensure they have enough time for classes and homework.

Nontraditional students must be realistic about their time constraints and understand that their current schedule will likely change. Before taking on new commitments, students should prioritize essential time commitments — like family obligations and coursework.

Students can mitigate these challenges with the help of a strong support system, including friends, family members, and academic counselors.

What Are Popular Majors for Nontraditional Students?


Accounting majors learn how to maintain and audit financial accounts. Many accounting programs prepare students for professional certification, such as certified public accounting certification.


Business majors learn essential skills related to business management, business law, financial management, and business ethics. Graduates can pursue corporate positions or start their own businesses.


Communications majors analyze and organize information. Students also learn to clearly and concisely convey information to different audiences through both writing and speaking.


Cybersecurity majors learn how to assess and mitigate threats. This major includes studies in programming, malware detection, statistical analysis, and infrastructure protection.


Nursing majors gain a thorough understanding of the human body by studying topics like chemistry, anatomy, and physiology. Students learn how to diagnose and treat patients.

Can Nontraditional Students Get Financial Aid?

Nontraditional college students may be able to access 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. Government-issued loans usually offer more favorable repayment terms and other protections/benefits related to deferment and forbearance.

Scholarships and grants are 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 find scholarships and grants specifically earmarked for nontraditional and older adult students. To learn more about various forms of financial aid, peruse our financial aid guide.

What Is the Age Cutoff for the FAFSA?

For many students, the search for financial aid begins by filling 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.

Nontraditional and older adult students who fill out the FAFSA must adhere to the same processes and deadlines as other students. You can also generate an estimate of how much aid you should qualify for by using the federal government's FAFSA4caster tool.

Best Online Colleges for Nontraditional Students

Rankings compiled by the BestColleges Ranking Team

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How We Ranked the Best Online Colleges for Nontraditional Students

At BestColleges, we believe a college education is one of the most important investments you can make. We want to help you navigate the college selection process by offering transparent, inclusive, and relevant school rankings.

In order to create this ranking, we looked at the best colleges and universities that 1) offer online programs and 2) accept life experience credits. We also only considered schools that enrolled a large number of undergraduate students who are 25 years or older (more than 30% of the undergraduate enrollment). To learn more about our different rankings, read our ranking methodology.

Best Colleges for Non-Traditional Students

  1. Southern New Hampshire University

    Manchester, NH

    Avg. Cost per Credit

    Undergrad, in state | $320

    Undergrad, out of state | $320

    Graduate, in state | $627

    Graduate, out of state | $627

    Based in Manchester, New Hampshire, SNHU is among the best colleges for nontraditional students in the nation. The university offers more than 200 online programs in fields like business, criminal justice, psychology, and computer science.

    Most courses at SNHU last for eight weeks. Many programs accept significant transfer credits and deliver coursework asynchronously, providing flexibility for working professionals. Prospective undergraduates must complete an application and submit academic transcripts.

  2. Liberty University

    Lynchburg, VA

    Avg. Cost per Credit

    Undergrad, in state | $390-$455

    Undergrad, out of state | $390-$455

    Graduate, in state | $565-$615

    Graduate, out of state | $565-$615

    Based in Lynchburg, Virginia, Liberty enrolls over 100,000 students, many of whom take classes online. The university also serves approximately 30,000 military students. Liberty provides online programs in fields like arts and sciences, criminal justice, education, and business. Most programs take place 100% online, and students pursuing bachelor's degrees can transfer in up to 75% of their required credits.

    Admission requirements vary by program, but often include an application, official transcripts, and a minimum GPA. Military students can receive up to 55% off of tuition.

  3. Purdue University Global

    West Lafayette, IN

    Avg. Cost per Credit

    Undergrad, in state | $371

    Undergrad, out of state | $371

    Graduate, in state | $420-$700

    Graduate, out of state | $420-$700

    Based in West Lafayette, Indiana, Purdue operates Purdue University Global, which serves as the university's virtual campus. This online university provides a career assessment tool that helps match prospective students with the right program. Students can also access one-on-one career advice once they enroll. Applicants must be proficient in English. Popular programs include business, health sciences, human services, and nursing.

    The university also offers online programs geared specifically toward members of the Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marines, and Navy. Military students can often earn transfer credit for their experience.

  4. Averett University

    Danville, VA

    Avg. Cost per Credit

    Undergrad, in state | $480

    Undergrad, out of state | $480

    Graduate, in state | $530-$695

    Graduate, out of state | $530-$695

    Based in Danville, Virginia, Averett operates a graduate and professional studies division that offers online bachelor's programs in business administration, leadership, sociology, nursing, and human services. Most programs eliminate in-person requirements, and incoming transfer students can submit all prior credits for evaluation. Each program offers five start dates per year, offering increased flexibility to working professionals and parents.

    Prospective undergraduate students must submit an application, official transcripts from previous schools, and a copy of their driver's license or government-issued identification.

  5. University of Maryland Global Campus

    Adelphi, MD



    Avg. Cost per Credit

    Undergrad, in state | $306

    Undergrad, out of state | $499

    Graduate, in state | $504

    Graduate, out of state | $659

    Based out of Largo, Maryland, UMGC is the virtual campus of the University of Maryland System. UMGC offers bachelor's degrees in fields like accounting, English, environmental management, homeland security, and software development, among many others. The university offers multiple start dates per semester to provide flexibility for older adult learners and working professionals.

    Undergraduate applicants need a high school or GED diploma to qualify for admission. Former community college students can transfer in up to 70 credits, while students transferring in from four-year schools can earn up to 90 credits for prior coursework.

  6. Charter Oak State College

    New Britain, CT



    Avg. Cost per Credit

    Undergrad, in state | $319

    Undergrad, out of state | $419

    Graduate, in state | $516

    Graduate, out of state | $540

    Located in New Britain, Connecticut, Charter Oak is a public college that exclusively offers online programs — primarily in career-focused fields like healthcare administration, paralegal studies, organizational leadership, and public safety administration. Aiming for flexibility, Charter Oak offers six start dates throughout the year for all of its online programs.

    Students can earn credit for prior learning and through various tests and assessments. Prospective undergraduate students must submit an application and official academic transcripts.

  7. UMass Global

    Irvine, CA

    Avg. Cost per Credit

    Undergrad, in state | $500

    Undergrad, out of state | $500

    Graduate, in state | $680

    Graduate, out of state | $680

    Based in Irvine, California, Brandman University became UMass Global in 2021. The university offers three online delivery methods: 100% online, hybrid, and a competency-based option that allows students to earn credits as they demonstrate mastery of material (as opposed to following a semester schedule). Approximately 90% of students keep their jobs while enrolled at UMass Global.

    Prospective students applying to bachelor's programs need at least 12 college credits with a minimum 2.0 GPA.

  8. Thomas University

    Thomasville, GA

    Avg. Cost per Credit

    Undergrad, in state | $450

    Undergrad, out of state | $450

    Graduate, in state | $524-$725

    Graduate, out of state | $524-$725

    Located in Thomasville, Georgia, TU is a private college that focuses on offering strong academics to military students. The university oversees online bachelor's programs in fields like computer information systems, criminal justice, elementary education, marketing, and rehabilitation studies.

    Prospective undergraduate students must submit an application and official transcripts. They should also have a minimum 2.0 cumulative GPA on previous coursework.

  9. Pacific Oaks College

    Pasadena, CA

    Avg. Cost per Credit

    Undergrad, in state | $360-$855

    Undergrad, out of state | $360-$855

    Graduate, in state | $1,115

    Graduate, out of state | $1,115

    Located in Pasadena, California, Pacific Oaks offers online bachelor's programs in early childhood education, human development, business administration, and social work. The college delivers most online coursework asynchronously through the Canvas learning management system. Most online courses at Pacific Oaks last for seven weeks each.

    Undergraduate applicants must have a minimum 2.0 cumulative high school GPA. They must also complete an interview with a member of the admissions department and have either three years of professional experience or 24 completed college credits.

  10. Herzing University

    Brookfield, WI

    Avg. Cost per Credit

    Undergrad, in state | $490

    Undergrad, out of state | $490

    Graduate, in state | $590

    Graduate, out of state | $590

    Based out of Madison, Wisconsin, Herzing primarily offers career-focused online programs in fields like nursing, healthcare, business, legal studies, public safety, and technology. The university delivers all online coursework asynchronously and offers multiple start dates throughout the academic year. Online students can also complete some coursework through blended learning if they wish.

    All applicants must meet online with a member of the admissions department. Additional requirements include an application, transcripts, and placement testing.

Feature Image: 10'000 Hours / DigitalVision / Getty Images 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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