College instructors, administrators, and students have asked “What is a Nontraditional Student?” for decades, and the answer differs depending upon the school, degree program and region. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) maintains a list of seven different characteristics of nontraditional students. They range from delayed college enrollment, to part-time studies combined with full-time work, to being a single parent, or simply the lack of a high school diploma. The original definition for nontraditional students only referred to the student being over age 25 when entering college. With about half of current students ranging in age from 25 to 75, being a nontraditional student is no longer rare or unusual, if it ever was.
Financial Aid Considerations
Part of the definition of nontraditional student impacts financial aid. You may be able to get different aid packages, scholarships, or receive different loans and grants if you are a single parent, lack a high school diploma, are working full-time and attending college part-time, or are a veteran or disabled.
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Some nontraditional students are returning to school to enhance their current career opportunities. For example, a nurse with a bachelor’s degree may want a master’s degree in a nursing specialty. He or she still works full-time and may have children or other family responsibilities. Others are changing career fields, or they may be returning to the working world after raising a family. An increasing number of nontraditional students aren’t attending college for career reasons. Instead, they value personal enrichment and may pursue education in the arts or another field of study that interests them.
Long work hours and many family responsibilities have led to the rapid increase in online education, from free, open video courses to degree programs. Brick and mortar colleges and universities recognize the time constraints of today’s students as well. Classes are now scheduled for early morning and evening hours, as well as on the weekends. Competing tensions between work, family and education have led to many different educational solutions.
Different Support Systems
Nontraditional students may require different types of support from the “traditional” student who has just graduated from high school and is leaving home for the first time. Schools which serve the “traditional” student typically have support systems in place which meet these students’ needs, from residential dorms with laundry rooms to counseling and health centers geared toward the needs of young adults. Nontraditional students have widely varying needs for support systems. Counseling and advising helps them to determine schedules and balance school, work and home. Resources for their individual needs can include Veterans support systems, programs for first-time college students, basic skills classes, and financial aid meeting unique needs.
Once based solely on student age, the definition of nontraditional students has grown to include many different factors influencing a student’s college enrollment, goals and experience. You may be under age 25 and be balancing work, home life and other family responsibilities. Other returning adult students are not just over age 25, they are over age 70. Still other nontraditional students include Veterans, individuals with disabilities, and career changers. The answer to the question “What is a traditional student?” will continue to evolve with many new fields of employment and ever-changing career and personal development goals.