Nontraditional Students: Who Are They and What Do They Need?

Gazing out over a classroom full of college students, professors are no longer looking at a room filled entirely with 18-year-old students, who are fresh out of high school, excited to learn, and excited to be living on their own for the first time in the campus dorms. Instead, they are now mixed with older students who went directly into the workforce after high school, who are working and raising families.

They are looking for a career instead of jobs and want to find better ways to support their families. Two-year-colleges like community colleges and for-profit colleges attract the highest number of these students because they are able to obtain a degree and new career quickly and with flexibility.

Students meeting these characteristics and others are called nontraditional students, or adult learners, and have far different educational needs than a traditional 18-year-old student does.

What Makes a Student Nontraditional

There are seven criteria that have been created to categorize a student as nontraditional, but the student only needs to meet one of these criteria to be considered nontraditional.

The seven components are: being over 24 years old; having a GED; working; having a child; being a single parent; waiting at least one year after high school to start college; and being a first-generation student (FGS), which means they are the first in their family to attend some form of college (“Nontraditional,” 2017; Ross-Gordon, 2011).

Some also consider needing financial aid a characteristic, but that is not what the majority of the literature available says since almost every college student, whether traditional or not, uses some kind of aid. Students who meet just one of these characteristics are considered nontraditional students.

Typically, however, these traits are combined, such as age, children and having jobs. The story most commonly told among nontraditional students is that they had children young, worked multiple jobs to raise them and now it is their turn to find a career to better support themselves and families. Nontraditional students are most commonly female but this is a trend, not criteria.

The Growing Population

Since 2006, college populations have changed significantly (Anderson, 2016). Throughout higher education, unfortunately enrollment trends are dropping, but the percentage of nontraditional students is expected to grow faster than traditional students (Anderson, 2016).

In 2010, it was the first time in the history of higher education in the United States that the number of nontraditional students in colleges peaked at 8.9 million (Smith-Barrow, 2018). From this time through 2015 though, the nontraditional population increased 35 percent to 12 million and is projected to rise another 11 percent to 13.3 million through 2026 (Smith-Barrow, 2018).

These students account for more than 71 percent of students enrolled in all of higher education (Sheehy, 2013; “Characteristics,” 2016). According to a 2012 study, 14 percent of nontraditional students are enrolled in community colleges; 10 percent attend public four-year colleges; 8 percent attend private four-year colleges; 2 percent attend four-year programs at for-profit institutions; and the final 66 percent are enrolled in for-profit institutions (“Web,” 2015).

Most Attractive Schools for Nontraditional Students

As demonstrated in the enrollment statistics, community colleges and for-profit institutions are the most attractive types of schools for nontraditional students because they typically offer degrees and certificate programs that take two years or less to finish, have flexibility in course scheduling, offer online options, and programs are usually career-geared.

For example, both schools typically provide workforce-related programs like nursing, truck driving, cosmetology or welding which will enable nontraditional students to enter the workforce quickly. Most nontraditional students have worked multiple jobs and are interested in these schools to enter a career and quickly.

The ability to transfer credits from these schools also makes them attractive. The main difference between community colleges and for-profit institutions is funding. Community colleges are funded by state and federal budgets, enabling these schools to offer students more services like educational planning, counseling centers and advising because more money is available to be spent per student.

For-profit schools, however, do not receive state or federal aid. They are financially supported solely through student tuition, Pell Grants given to low-income students, private loans students take out to pay for tuition and GI Bills. Because of this, program costs are typically higher and fewer student services exist because there is less spent per student.

While community colleges are run by governing boards, so they are regulated more closely and have boards to answer to, whereas for-profits are run by corporations and businesses, so their goal is to make profits, and they only have accountability to their stakeholders, or investors. Though both types of schools must be accredited to actually function as schools, community colleges’ credits generally transfer to four-year schools or bridge programs enabling students to continue their education after community college.

For-profit schools like Capella University, the University of Phoenix, McCann or Fortis Institute though, do not typically have bridge programs or a structure that allows earned credits to transfer outside of the for-profit system.

Nontraditional Student Issues

Because nontraditional students are older, may have children, are typically working, and financially independent, they face different issues in college than their 18-year-old traditional counterparts. Since adult learners are enrolled in every type of institute of higher education, it is important that administrators and instructors understand these issues in order to create better systems and instructional techniques to help these students succeed and graduate. Nearly 70 percent of nontraditional students dropout of college (New, 2014). The issues facing nontraditional students fall into three categories.


In 2012, the Lumina Foundation found that family and work responsibilities were the two highest-rated issues nontraditional students face (Erisman, & Steele, 2012). Because over 80 percent of adult learners work while they are in school, these students find balancing their families, financial obligations and schoolwork as a significant issue (Ross-Gordon, 2011).

Responsibilities like childcare, finances, health issues, transportation and finding a way to manage all of it were big hurdles to staying in school (Erisman, & Steele, 2012).


Since nontraditional learners spend at least one year out of school after graduating from high school or completing their GED, academically, transitioning back into a classroom is a struggle. The most common struggles nontraditional learners face are changes in technology; strategies for taking notes and tests, reading textbooks and navigating teacher expectations (Higgins, 2010; Ross-Gordon, 2011).

Many need foundational courses in math and writing to refresh their skills or teach them new ones (Erisman, & Steele, 2012). Some need help understanding what a syllabus is, what it is used for, how to navigate it and how to create their own structure from them (Bidwell, 2014; Peters, Hyun, Taylor, & Varney, 2010).


The final category that creates issues for nontraditional students are their emotions. Because they are older than a traditional student, adult learners can experience a lot of anxieties related to their age and school experiences once in the classroom. They also experience significant doubts and low self-esteem. Any mistake, regardless of how small it may seem to someone else, adult learners react more strongly.

Being in a classroom also means that they are away for their families and doing something for themselves, which leads to feelings of selfishness and guilt (Erisman, & Steele, 2012; Perna, 2016). In the Lumina Foundation’s study, more than half of the respondents said fear kept them from even attempting to go to college at all (Erisman, & Steele, 2012).


When a nontraditional student is also a first-generation student, they also often feel misunderstood at home because relatives do not understand what they are going through (Perna, 2016). Relatives may attempt to empathize with the adult learner, but because they cannot relate first-hand, it can feel isolating for the adult learner. This is compounded when there are language differences and words in English that may not translate correctly. Not only do FGS students often feel unsupported, they often feel lost and confused as they are the first to attempt to navigate the college process.

While filling out the application process may not seem difficult, it can be for adult learners who are not as familiar with technology and completing forms online. After that is navigating the registration process, filling out a FAFSA for financial aid, and understanding what courses to choose for certain programs.

Most colleges have departments to assist students through these steps, but just beginning all of these processes can seem so daunting and overwhelming, that students may talk themselves out of it before even attempting (Brown, 2013).

What Nontraditional Students Need

When nontraditional students’ issues are not addressed by colleges, it causes these students to drop out, most often within the first four months; therefore, there are services that colleges can focus on for their adult learner population in order to keep them enrolled and help them succeed.

Early Intervention

Nearly half of the adult students who enter college need remediation in some form, and providing this to students in their first semester helps them cope with their emotions and reduces their chances of dropping out (Oudenhoven, 2002; Bigger, 2005).

Mandatory freshman seminar courses have been on the rise at colleges and universities across the country because of their success. Approximately 94 percent of all colleges offer a seminar course (Keup, 2012). Because these class sizes are smaller; offer students emotional, academic and time management strategies; and provide helpful fundamental skills, nontraditional students benefit from these courses tremendously. They are found to be most beneficial when offered as mandatory three-credit courses because the students then have an opportunity to work through issues they encounter during their first semester (Cuseo, n.d.).

Freshman seminar courses are not the only ways to help nontraditional students early in their college career. Creating chances for nontraditional students to meet each other prior to the beginning of a semester and during the semester can help reinforce to these students that there are others who are going through the same issues and worries they are. Creating a network for nontraditional students can increase their connection to school and desire to be there.

Assigning students faculty mentors early in their college career in addition to an academic advisor and counselor can help students feel insulated by their school so that no matter what they need, they have a place to go for consistent and honest answers. Nontraditional students flourish faster when they not only know that they have people behind them to support them, but begin to trust those departments; therefore, follow-through is a pertinent and valuable tool in gaining an adult learner’s trust.

Typically, nontraditional learners will take advantage of opportunities given to them, but are far less likely to ask for the help, even if the support is there (Metzner, & Bean, 1987).


Since nontraditional students began appearing on researchers’ radar, course flexibility has ranked near if not at the top of these students’ needs (Berling, 2013). Schools that offer evening, weekend, and online courses; shorter programs with only necessary courses that get learners into the workforce faster; credits for courses the student has already taken; and are geographically close to the student are more appealing to adult learners (Berling, 2013).

Fifty percent of students rated transfer credits very important to school selection while almost 75 percent felt flexible schedules were very important to them (Erisman, & Steele, 2012). Schools that also offer some kind of childcare programs and transportation assistance for its students are far more popular among adult learners as this eases a nontraditional students’ external pressures (Erisman, & Steele, 2012).

Differentiated Instruction

For nontraditional students, instructors must move away from traditional lecture-based instruction and instead create a learner-centered environment. This is done by giving students choices, using active learning strategies, flipping classrooms where students read or listen to the lecture for homework and use class time for projects or problems, and having students be instructors.

Nontraditional students learn best by connecting the course material to their lives and the world; this realistic application of material makes it more impactful and meaningful for adult learners (“Principles,” n.d.). This means that they learn best by being involved with the material through role-playing, partaking in discussions, observing and using hands-on applications (Vandenberg, 2012).

Additionally, instructors need to be willing and excited to have their students teach them things. Each nontraditional student has been in the “real world” and each have varied and valuable experiences that should be highlighted and shared.

Nontraditional students respond better when instructors make their expectations very clear from the beginning of a course and provide both formal and informal feedback on assignments and their daily progress (Kuh, Cruce, Shoup, Kinzie, & Gonyea, 2008; Berling, 2013).

Instructor Support

Having a strong connection with instructors and a school’s facilities are vital for a nontraditional student’s success (Erisman, & Steele, 2012). When students felt personal connections with instructors, they were more motivated, held more accountable, and felt more invested in the school (Metzner, & Bean, 1987).

Adult learners already have a lot of external motivators for doing well in school such as making a better living, setting positive examples for their children, achieving their own goals; however, nontraditional students already have developed self-concepts related to school based on past experiences and can lack positive internal motivation for school.

Adult learners lose initial motivation and excitement quickly with any kind of setback, regardless of how minute it may seem, due to their past and emotional vulnerability (Lawrence, 2000). Because of this potential lack of internal motivation or poor self-concept related to school, it is so incredibly important for instructors to provide positive, extrinsic motivation continually for these students until they begin to buy into the concept themselves (Chao, 2009).

Little things that instructors do speak volumes to nontraditional students like teachers knowing their students’ names, remembering personal details about their students, taking an active role in caring for their students’ success and relating to them personally enhances student satisfaction in the classroom (Burt, Young-Jones, Yadon, & Carr, 2013).

Providing students with structure, specific learning objectives, immediate feedback, constant access to their grades and records, learning students’ temperaments, and beginning assessments graded based on effort rather than correctness are ways to build student motivation, lessen their anxiety and help them persist (Lawrence, 2000).

Instructors utilizing positive extrinsic motivation like exhibiting signs of pride, belief in their abilities, encouragement, care, interest in their lives and positive feedback increases an adult learner’s sense of investment and value in their school and education (O’Neill, & Thomson, 2013).

Every adult student surveyed by Lumina Foundation reported that academic advising and instructor relationships were important to them (Erisman, & Steele, 2012). Faculty-student relationships are pivotal to adult learners’ success (O’Neill, & Thomson, 2013).


Nontraditional students enrolled in any college postsecondary programs undoubtedly need support, guidance and patience from not only those in their personal lives but primarily those in their academic lives.

Part of the responsibility instructors and schools face in enrolling large populations of adult learners is not only teaching the students how to persist and succeed, but to first understand what the students’ deficits and challenges are.

Implementing all of these strategies creates a positive learning experience for the student and a strong rapport with the instructor which can foster a lifelong love of learning, which results in retention, persistence and completion.

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