College Information & Resources for Non-Traditional Students

Traditional college students typically attend class full-time and fall within a specific age group. Although there is no true definition for a non-traditional student, this type of student usually meets several criteria. Age is one of the biggest factors in determining whether someone is a non-traditional student. Traditional students typically range from 18 to 22 years of age. Non-traditional learners may be adults of any age. Non-traditional learners often work full-time and attend college part-time. Some non-traditional students have spouses and children.

Because of these differences, the needs of non-traditional students are very different from the needs of traditional students. While traditional students typically need guidance in selecting their career paths and determining who they are as people, adult students are more independent and may already have specific careers in mind.

Reasons for Delayed Enrollment

Most people who delay enrolling in college have a specific reason for doing so. Some choose to get a job and save money for several years so that they can better afford the cost of attending college. People with sick family members may need to delay college enrollment to provide care and support to those family members. Marriage and parenthood are two common reasons for delaying enrollment. Young parents may find it more cost-effective to care or their children at home than to pay daycare providers or babysitters. Some students choose to delay their enrollment because they are not sure what they want to do. Taking a few years to work and explore different careers gives these students the opportunity to develop a career plan before enrolling in college courses.

  • College for Adults: The National College Transition Network offers information for adults interesting in selecting a college, applying to college, and enrolling in colleges courses.
  • Adult Learners: This page explains some of the reasons why adults might choose to return to college.

Living Situation

Traditional college students typically live in dormitories or stay with their parents during school. Adult learners have several options for housing. Some schools offer on-campus housing specifically for non-traditional students. The major benefit of this type of housing is that staying on campus eliminates the need to commute to school each day. Living with other non-traditional learners may also help students get involved in study groups and other campus activities. Some adult students would prefer to live independently, so off-campus apartments are another option. College towns typically have a number of apartments available during the school year, but living in one of these apartments increases the total cost of getting a college education. Adults who are married or have children may choose to stay in their homes and commute a long distance to their college campuses. Some non-traditional students commute several hours each day so they can get their degrees.

  • Adults Returning to School: This guide from the Greater Washington College Information Center discusses information about school size, transfer credits, college cost, and other topics of interest to adults who want to attend college.
  • Tips for Adult and Nontraditional Students: This article from Rutgers University College Community offers tips for success an adult college student.

Tuition and Course Load

Tuition costs vary based on college size, available programs, fees and materials, and college reputation. An Ivy League school may cost as much as $50,000 per year to attend full-time. Community colleges are an affordable alternative to attending a four-year college or university. These colleges offer courses at as little as $60 per credit, making it affordable to complete basic undergraduate courses in history, communications, and mathematics. After completing these courses at a community college, non-traditional students may choose to complete their degrees at private or public colleges. In addition to tuition, colleges typically charge fees for things like parking, technology, and laboratory use. Adult students should consider these fees when determining the total cost of attending college.

Course load is another important consideration for non-traditional students. Many adult learners work full-time, so attending college full-time is not an option. Most colleges have part-time programs available so that adult learners can continue earning money while getting an education. Online courses are a good option for adult learners who work long hours and may not be able to attend classes on campus. Online classes offer opportunities for interacting with professors and students via online course software. Tests, quizzes, and assignments are completed and submitted online. It may also be possible to get credit for prior learning by taking and passing examinations in specific subject areas.

  • College Level Examination Program: This resource offers information about the College Level Examination Program (CLEP), a program that offers students the opportunity to receive college credit for what they already know.
  • College Credit Recommendation Service: This resource explains how adult students can get college credit for their work experience.

Online Learning vs. Traditional Higher Education

Although online learning is a good opportunity for some students, online classes are not for everyone. Enrolling in online courses typically requires better time management and organizational skills, as students must complete all of their work on their own time. Students enrolled in online courses often have to teach themselves the course material without the benefit of having other students or an instructor in the room. Another major drawback to online courses is that online learners do not have the opportunity to join study groups or participate in campus activities. This isolates non-traditional students from their peers.

Available Resources

Adult students do not have to navigate the college application and enrollment process alone. There are many on-campus and off-campus resources available to help students learn how to apply for financial aid, plan a course schedule, and decide on a career path. Adult learners also have access to tutoring, counseling, and other services. Students who need career advice should check with the career services office to learn about starting a new career, applying for jobs, and writing cover letters. The staff members of the financial aid, registration, and accounting departments can answer specific questions about paying for college, applying for financial aid, and enrolling in courses.


Written by Grace Ann Stanford

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