Meeting the Needs of Nontraditional Students

A nontraditional student is defined as having one or more of the following characteristics:

  • Attending school part-time 
  • Working full-time
  • Identifying as a single caregiver
  • Having one or more dependents
  • Not having a traditional high school diploma
  • Being financially independent for financial aid purposes
  • Having delayed postsecondary education

However, according to data from a recent National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) report, 74% of all undergraduate students enrolled during the 2011-2012 academic year possessed at least one of the above characteristics.

The NCES brief notes, “Examining nontraditional characteristics is important not only because a high percentage of postsecondary students possess them, but also because students with these characteristics can be vulnerable to challenges that can affect their well-being, levels of stress and satisfaction, and likelihood of persisting and attaining a degree.”

Nontraditional students face struggles that their more traditional counterparts might not. Trying to schedule classes and fit coursework around a work schedule is difficult. Attending school part-time while working or handling family demands can postpone degree attainment. Balancing financial commitments and keeping an eye on student debt is often stressful and sometimes may lead to students dropping out or putting their postsecondary education on hold.  

Data from the NCES report highlights the urgency for colleges and universities to make more courses available online to help meet the needs of the nontraditional student, as they are among those most likely to enroll in one or more online courses.

Online courses offer both convenience and flexibility, providing a way to meld a busy lifestyle with educational goals. Students are not bound by either time or physical location – allowing them to make the choice as to when and where to study and complete their coursework. 

Ruffalo Noel Levits and CAEL conducted a survey of adult students from the 2015-16 academic year that found adult learners have different needs than “traditional-aged” students. Some of those needs include:

·         Courses offering flexibility.

·         More course offerings in their major.

·         Multiple options for financial aid and billing.

In addition, higher education as a whole should further examine flexible degree programs, credentialing options, badges, competency-based learning, and alternatives to the traditional credit hour to help meet the needs of today’s student. This evolution of higher education will drive greater degree attainment and job placement, ensuring student success both in the classroom and beyond.

The definition of a traditional student appears to be outdated. As the number of nontraditional students grows, perhaps it’s time to look at the definitions. It would appear that our “nontraditional” students have now become our “new traditional” students.