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What is a Non-Traditional Student in Higher Education?

Higher education is transforming at a rapid pace; there’s no denying it. 

There are nearly 40 million adults in the United States who have some college credits but no degree. The traditional-aged student is becoming the minority population for higher education, and institutions need to shed more light on their largest audience. Instead, a growing number of learners are pursuing higher education later in life, bringing a wealth of diverse experiences and perspectives to the classroom.

These non-traditional students face unique challenges, but they also enjoy a range of benefits. Understanding the journey of non-traditional learners and the obstacles they encounter can better position higher education institutions to support modern learner needs.

What is a non-traditional student?

Non-traditional students are individuals who pursue higher education at a later stage in life, typically after a significant gap since their last experience with formal education. They may be working professionals seeking career advancement or individuals who postponed their education due to personal or financial reasons.

These students bring invaluable life experiences, maturity, and a strong drive to excel. At this point in time, they’re looking to Continuing Education to help them reskill and upskill and turn them into lifelong learners. 

Challenges faced by adult learners

Non-traditional learners encounter a set of unique challenges that can make their educational journeys uniquely demanding. 

Time constraints often arise from juggling work, family responsibilities, and other personal commitments. Financial pressures—including tuition and the cost of living–can impose significant limitations. Balancing multiple responsibilities becomes a delicate act, as non-traditional students must manage their education alongside work and family obligations. 

Adapting to a new learning environment can be daunting, especially for those who have been out of the education system for an extended period. And finally, the lack of support networks specifically tailored to adult students can leave them feeling isolated and overwhelmed.

Benefits for non-traditional learners

Despite the challenges they face, non-traditional learners stand to gain numerous benefits from pursuing higher education. 

Career advancement becomes attainable as they acquire new skills and knowledge that can open doors to higher-level positions. Increased earning potential follows as many industries place a premium on non-traditional education. 

Beyond professional development and personal growth, there are significant outcomes of returning to education, fostering self-confidence and a sense of accomplishment. Additionally, non-traditional learners have the opportunity to expand their networks, connecting with like-minded individuals and industry professionals, further enhancing their career prospects.

How can higher education institutions support non-traditional students?

To create an inclusive and supportive environment for non-traditional learners, colleges and universities should consider implementing several key initiatives, including the following.

Flexible learning options

Institutions can offer online, weekend, or evening classes to accommodate the scheduling conflicts faced by non-traditional students. Students demand flexible scheduling. By leveraging the right tech tools, university and college students can find their perfect schedule. 

Financial aid and scholarships

Providing financial assistance and scholarships tailored to the needs of non-traditional learners can alleviate the burden of tuition fees and encourage enrollment.

Support services

Dedicated support services—such as counseling, advising, and career services—can guide students through their educational journey and help them navigate challenges to enrollment, retention, and persistence. By having a dedicated support hub, support services can connect with students in the palm of their hand

Recognition and inclusion

Recognizing non-traditional students' unique experiences fosters belonging and active participation. 

Their needs differ from those of traditional on-campus students as they’re balancing work and life responsibilities. Tailored support, flexible learning options, and inclusive communities empower these students. 

Their engagement enriches education, inspires peers, and strengthens the community, promoting academic success and personal growth.

Academic resources

To increase access for all learners, institutions must prioritize providing readily available resources such as libraries, research facilities, and academic materials. 

By ensuring these tools are easily accessible, non-traditional students can overcome barriers related to location, time constraints, or financial limitations. This can be achieved through extended library hours, digital databases accessible online, and the provision of affordable or free textbooks and course materials. 

Additionally, institutions can invest in technology infrastructure, including robust internet connectivity and computer labs, to bridge the digital divide and enable remote access to resources. 

Community networks

Establishing networks and support groups specifically for non-traditional learners can create a sense of camaraderie and provide a platform for sharing experiences and offering mutual support.

Online education platforms

Online education continues to grow in popularity, as it’s estimated that more than 30% of American students are enrolled in at least one online course. 

Developing and expanding online education platforms can provide greater accessibility, allowing learners to pursue their education remotely.

Tailored curriculum offerings

User-friendly, accessible, and visually appealing course catalogs are crucial for increasing access. By offering programs and courses that cater to non-traditional learners' needs and interests, institutions enhance their educational experience, empowering them to easily navigate and choose relevant opportunities for their academic goals.

Career counseling services

Providing career counseling services that focus on the specific goals and aspirations of students can assist them in making informed decisions about their future.

Non-traditional learners bring a diverse range of experiences and perspectives to higher education institutions. While they face challenges—such as time constraints, financial pressures, and adapting to a new learning environment— they also enjoy significant benefits. This includes career advancement, increased earning potential, personal growth, and networking opportunities. 

By implementing flexible learning options, support services, and various modalities, higher education institutions can create an environment that supports and celebrates the achievements of non-traditional learners. Embracing and empowering non-traditional students not only benefits these individuals but also enriches the educational landscape as a whole.

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Shauna Cox

Shauna Cox

Shauna Cox is the Editor-in-Chief of The EvoLLLution, the online newspaper developed by Modern Campus to create a conversation hub focused on non-traditional higher education and the transforming postsecondary marketplace. She began her Modern Campus journey with The EvoLLLution in 2019, and has since added Content Marketing Manger to her title. Shauna works personally with every contributor at The EvoLLLution to produce the content that has supported the site’s rise to becoming the top resource for non-traditional higher education. She earned her BA in Journalism from Toronto Metropolitan University, and lives in Toronto, Ontario.

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Last updated: November 27, 2023


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