If you’re reading this, you’re likely a college student that doesn’t fit the traditional mold. While the definition of nontraditional varies, common identifiers include being older than 24, part-time enrollment, full-time employment, a first-generation college student, veteran status, and/or taking time off after high school graduation. Perhaps the most common trait of nontraditional students is being older than the 18-24 age range which people typically associated with college students. Although 63% of Americans think the average age of a college student is 20, it’s actually closer to 27. This difference between the perception and reality of college highlights the demographic change in higher education.
As a nontraditional student, you’re facing different challenges than your peers. You may feel overwhelmed by new technology or the financial burden on top of feeling socially isolated. This guide is meant to alleviate your struggles, whatever forms they take. We’ll go over the types of assistance available and end with a directory of scholarships and resources specifically geared toward nontraditional students. While your college experience will have its challenges, knowing where to turn for support can make the process easier.
Support Systems for Nontraditional Students
Nontraditional students have very different needs from the usual 18–22-year-old undergrad. Perhaps you’re supporting a family or working a demanding day job in addition to coursework. Whatever you’re dealing with, remember that your life experience can be an invaluable contribution in the classroom. But first, you’ll need support. Whether you’re looking for a scholarship, academic advice, or a social outlet, the following services and organizations exist to help nontraditional students like you succeed.
As a nontraditional college student, you may have different demands on your finances. Unlike some of your peers, you may need specific payment plans or financial options to cover tuition. Look for colleges that either offer a dedicated financial aid officer or someone who is well versed in working with nontraditional students. Keep in mind that there are no age restrictions for federal and state loans and grants – you are eligible whether you are age 18, 38, or 78! And don’t forget to seek out scholarships specifically created for nontraditional students.
Depending on your own unique trajectory, you may need special academic attention. Perhaps it’s been a while since you’ve been in school, and you need to brush up on some basic writing or math skills. Classroom technology is also constantly changing so familiarizing yourself with online tools such as Canvas or Blackboard might be easier if you have extra instruction or a demo. As you research programs, look for options that offer smaller group learning such as freshman seminars and study groups.
Counselors & Mental Health Support
Nontraditional students face unique mental health challenges. You may be dealing with childcare issues, navigating divorce, or figuring out how to make ends meet financially. When you add lectures, readings, and exams on top of those things, it can feel overwhelming. And unfortunately, the attrition rate for nontraditional students can be quite high, so having a mental health support system is crucial. Many schools offer mental health counselors and/or peer counselors for free or at a reduced rate. If you’re struggling, opening up about your situation and creating a plan to deal with stressors, can make a huge difference.
Many colleges are looking for ways to include nontraditional students. In addition to athletics and Greek life that appeal to more traditional students, seek out clubs that are geared more toward your demographic. For example, your college may offer childcare swaps or dedicated online support groups. The Association for Nontraditional Students in Higher Education (ANTSHE) has resources for campus organizations and even runs a national Nontraditional Student Awareness Week each fall.
Inclusive Campus Environments
As of Fall of 2021, over a third of college students were age 25 and older. While some schools are decidedly focused on dorm and Greek life, there are plenty of options that cater to nontraditional students. If you’re considering an on-campus program, ask questions about the classes and environment. Are there any family-friendly activities like holiday events or on-campus childcare? Do nontraditional students feel included when it comes to things like sporting events or meals? You don’t have to spend every minute on campus, but feeling connected to the community can make a big difference in your general happiness (and graduation rate).
Guidance for Nontraditional Student Success
You’ve taken a big step by enrolling in college. As you get ready to enter the classroom and tackle coursework, you might be feeling a little overwhelmed. Fortunately, there are some things you can do to smooth the process. The following tips are geared toward helping nontraditional students like you find success.
Because you likely have other demands on your time and finances, keep in mind that your college journey may look a little different than you expected. Perhaps you’ll do best by enrolling part-time or in fully online or asynchronous courses. Think about your schedule and how much time you can realistically devote to coursework. Once classes begin and you have your syllabus, try to do a bit of work each day rather than saving all the reading or problem sets until the due date.
If this is your first time taking a college-level course or if it’s been a while, you may want to brush up on your note-taking and writing skills. Find out if your school has a writing center or offers small group tutoring for some extra help. It’s also a good idea to familiarize yourself with the syllabus and any online course components. Each site come with their own unique platform and layout. So, take a few minutes to practice logging in, navigating around the website, and learning how to use the site. That familiarity can help you feel more confident when assignments are due.
Create a Study Strategy
Since your time is precious, you’ll want to study smarter, not harder. Time management is a vital skill to succeed in college. At the beginning of each semester, closely review the syllabus to get an idea of the course schedule. Will you have weekly quizzes? When are the big assignments due? You can also get a calendar or a planner to mark all the assignment deadlines and testing days. Once you know what’s coming, you can break the work down into chunks. Schedule these “study chunks” and stick to them just as you would an in-person meeting or work duty. Aim to spread the work out over the week rather than cramming it all in at once. And if you can avoid it, don’t multitask. You’ll be more productive if you focus on schoolwork and only schoolwork.
Develop Your Support System
Your unique situation will determine the type of support that you need. Will you require childcare for class and studying? Do you need financial support such as scholarships? Or maybe you want to join student groups to connect to the college community. Think about what you might need to be a successful student and then don’t be shy about asking for that help!
Focus on Your Why
You enrolled in college for a reason and when things get challenging, try to keep your purpose top of mind. Is it to advance your career? Earn a higher salary? Become the first in your family to graduate with a college degree? Write your reasons on a post-it notes and keep it handy. Remember that every lecture, every paper, and every late night is one step closer to your goal.
Ask for Help if Needed
If you find that you’re struggling mentally, don’t hesitate to reach out to your school’s health center. Most universities have on-campus counselors or mental health services that can help you work through any issues. If you’re struggling academically, your professor’s office hours are a good place to start. Need to brush up on specific skills? Your academic advisor may be able to assist with setting up tutoring. Even if you’re not sure what you need, just setting up a time to talk to someone may help you figure it out.
Benefits of Online College for Nontraditional Students
Over the past decade or so, the increase in online college programs has been a game changer for nontraditional students. With an internet connection and a computer, students now have the flexibility to take courses whenever and wherever it fits their schedule. Below we’ll outline some benefits of online college and explain how this format can support the unique needs of nontraditional college students.
Whether you have a full-time job or family obligations, getting a degree through an online program can make balancing everything a lot easier. Rather than spending time commuting to class or figuring out childcare, you can complete coursework when it’s convenient for your schedule in the comfort of your own home. Some programs even offer asynchronous courses which means you can access the lectures and assignments whenever you have the spare time– no live lectures or Zoom meetings required. So, give online classes some consideration so you can have a better work/life balance.
Study from Anywhere
Perhaps you live in a rural area, hours from the nearest college or maybe you travel a lot for work. With an online college program, you can complete coursework wherever you have access to an internet connection. Whether you prefer the quiet hum of a coffee shop or the comfort of your own home, you can choose how and when to study. This is especially important for nontraditional students who may need to study in the cracks of their busy schedule – lunch breaks, early mornings, or after the kids go to bed.
When you attend college online, you’ll likely have plenty of other nontraditional students as classmates. Whether you meet over Zoom meetings or study groups, having a community of people who have the same educational goals (and possibly similar challenges) can be reassuring. Having a support system of peers can also help you tackle the overwhelming experience of school and the feeling of social exclusion might also fade away. Many online colleges have specific resources for their nontraditional students, from transition advisors to dedicated Facebook groups. And while an online college is unlikely to have sports teams, some have introduced mascots and in-person events to foster community.
Learn New Skills
Many nontraditional students are working professionals looking to advance their careers or move into a new industry. Whether you want to finish your Bachelor’s degree or simply brush up on a specific skill like statistics or marketing, online courses are a great way to do it. While a degree is usually the end goal, learning new skills along the way can also be satisfying and fun.
One of the best things about an online degree is its affordability compared to brick-and-mortar schools. As an online student, you’ll save on things like room & board, gas, and maybe even some student fees. Online schools are often tailored toward nontraditional students, so they likely don’t have as many optional amenities and activities (e.g., athletics, social events) that drive up costs.
Work While Earning Your Degree
As a nontraditional student, you may be working and supporting yourself financially. One of the best things about an online college is that the flexibility can allow you to also work full time. With asynchronous classes, there’s no need to commute to campus or leave work early. You can do schoolwork whenever it works with your schedule.
Scholarships & Grants for Nontraditional Students
Nontraditional students are often financially independent, so the cost of higher education is likely top of mind. In addition to applying for federal and state aid, be sure to look into scholarships and grants specifically geared toward nontraditional students. Below are 10 opportunities to get you started.
- Amount: $2,500-3,000
- Eligibility: Open to undergraduate students attending an institution with an active Alpha Sigma Lambda chapter (do not need to be a member), must have completed at least 24 semester credit hours (or 26 quarter hours) with a GPA of 3.2 or higher. Students must demonstrate a need for financial assistance.
- Deadline to Apply: Applications open in January 2024; deadline is dependent on individual chapter councilors.
- Amount: $2,000
- Eligibility: This scholarship is intended for students who have been part of the American Legion family for at least two years and are returning to academia after a break or beginning their academic journey later in life. . Applicants should be enrolled in a 2-year or 4-year college or a certified trade, professional, or technical program.
- Deadline to Apply: March 1 of the calendar year
- Amount: Varies from $1,000 to $3,000
- Eligibility: Applicants must be a woman currently serving or has served honorably in the U.S. Army, U.S. Army Reserve, or U.S. Army National Guard or be a lineal descendant of a member. There are GPA and credit requirements depending on the specific scholarship (community college, graduate level, etc.).
- Deadline to Apply: 2024 deadline TBD
- Amount: Varies
- Eligibility: Funded by the Bernard Osher Foundation, this scholarship program supports nontraditional students with a break of five or more years in their education. Applicants must demonstrate financial need and the desire to enter the workforce after graduation. Institutions administer the scholarships individually, so consult the website for a list of participating colleges.
- Deadline to Apply: Varies by institution
- Amount: Varies
- Eligibility: This scholarship is intended for adult women learners who are enrolling or are already enrolled in secondary education for the first time or are re-training due to a professional change. Applicants must reside within the boundaries of a participating Executive Women’s International chapter.
- Deadline to Apply: March 2024
- Amount: $1,000 for first prize
- Eligibility: Open to 10th, 11th, or 12th grade students in addition to current undergrads and nontraditional students. This scholarship is entirely merit-based and doesn’t consider financial need. Applicants should also be U.S. citizens attending an accredited school or program.
- Deadline to Apply: October 17, 2023 for fall admission and April 2024 for spring admission
- Amount: Varies
- Eligibility: The National Leased Housing Association (NLHA) sponsors this scholarship in honor of Mary Lou Manzie, a tireless advocate for affordability housing. Applicants should be residents in low-income housing (e.g., section 8), demonstrate financial need, and have a solid academic record.
- Deadline to Apply: April (exact 2024 deadline is TBD)
- Amount: Up to $5,000
- Eligibility: Applicants must be women who is at least 17 years old with dependent children. In addition, they must be enrolled full time at a not-for-profit, accredited institution for their first degree.
- Deadline to Apply: August 1, 2023
- Amount: $1,000 for first prize
- Eligibility: Applicants must be U.S. citizens or legal residents, aged 17 years or older (no age maximum). They should be current students or begin a program (undergrad or graduate) within the next 12 months, and the application include a three-sentence essay explaining the reason to attend college.
- Deadline to Apply: September 30, 2023
- Amount: Varies
- Eligibility: Applicants should be single (or in the process of getting divorced) and the parent with physical custody at least 50% of the time. Applicants also need to be U.S. residents earning their first bachelor’s degree and have a 2.0 or higher GPA. Income should not be more than 250% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines.
- Deadline to Apply: June 15 for fall, October 15 for spring, March 15 for summer
Success Resources for Nontraditional Students
Marketing materials and popular media often portray college students as 18-year-olds, living in dorms, with no family or work obligations. If that doesn’t describe you, it may feel frustrating. Fortunately, there’s been a movement to be more inclusive when it comes to college students. Below is a collection of resources (blogs, podcasts, internet communities) that aim to describe and support the unique experience of a nontraditional college student. Whether you’re looking for advice or camaraderie, the following resources can help.
- 17 Tech Tools for Online College Students: Whether you want to improve your note-taking skills or eliminate distractions, don’t miss this comprehensive list of app and website suggestions.
- Active Minds Slack Channel: Active Minds has numerous chapters at colleges and universities across the country. The organization’s mission is to improve mental health. Students can join the slack channel to share ideas and ask questions.
- Adult Higher Education Alliance (AHEA): This organization works to promote adult learning at institutions, as well as protect the rights of nontraditional students. They hold a conference each March with in-person and Zoom presentations.
- Adultstudent.com Blog Post: This article has a lot of tips on schedule management for older students and nontraditional learners. If you’re looking to allot more time in your day, this is a good place to start.
- Adult Student College Prep Checklist: This checklist from the U.S. Department of Education is geared toward older learners. From earning a GED to choosing an affordable program, it has tips for nontraditional students.
- Horizons Podcast “What Nontraditional Students Teach All of Us”: this podcast episode features a number of nontraditional learners detailing the highs and lows of their college experience.
- Maryville University Nontraditional Student Health & Wellness Resources: With many demands on your time, you may not always know how to eat well, exercise, and sleep enough. This list of tips is geared toward busy nontraditional students who want to stay healthy.
- National Educational Service Centers Nontraditional Student Resources: This page is geared toward Latinx students and covers everything from college cost comparison to navigating school as a nontraditional immigrant student.
- Pinnacle & Spire Honor Societies: Intended for individuals at 2-year and 4-year colleges, these societies specifically honor the academic accomplishments of nontraditional students.
- Purdue Online Writing Lab: This free online resource has tips and resources for all types of college writers. Whether you need help adding citations or need general writing tips, this site is a good place to start.
- Shippensburg University Nontraditional Student Lounge: While this lounge is specific to Shippensburg University, it’s an example of the in-person resources many schools are now offering to nontraditional students.
- Southern Illinois University Nontraditional Housing: Again, this housing page is specific to Southern Illinois University, but with apartment options for families, attached playgrounds, and childcare, it’s a great example of what is available at some institutions.
- Taking Flight: The Guide to College for Diverse Learners and Nontraditional Students: This book covers a number of mainly non-academic situations that nontraditional students may encounter in college.
- Traditional Degrees for Nontraditional Students: Another book geared at nontraditional students navigating the college classroom. The author’s view is unique in that she advocates adult learners, even those with jobs and dependents, opt for a traditional college experience.
- University of Oregon First Generation Students: This blog has a number of resources for first-generation students including encouraging words of advice. It’s geared toward UO students, but anyone can benefit.
Interview with a Nontraditional Student
The definition of a non-traditional student varies depending on whom you ask, but ultimately, it’s someone who took a less common path to earning a college degree. We chatted with Jessica Bashaw, an Organizational Development Manager at a global biotech company who is also earning her doctoral degree fully online. Ms. Bashaw’s undergrad and graduate experience were far from traditional, but she says her journey helped to shape the professional she is today. Below she gives advice to non-traditional students in similar situations.
Q: How did you balance your academic commitments with other responsibilities, such as work or family obligations?
A: I have always worked while being a student. In undergrad I was able to arrange my work and class schedules to not overlap. I also chose to work at places on or near campus, so I didn’t have to worry about commuting. In graduate school, the main thing that allowed me to balance my life, work, and school has been choosing fully online programs. The flexibility of fully online programs allowed me to do most of my program schoolwork after my daughter went to bed and while my husband cared for my stepson.
Q: Are there any specific support systems or resources that have been particularly helpful to you as a nontraditional student?
A: This really depends on the school/program. My current school is designed to support online learning, so the online library and online resources are abundant, and they include one-on-one and small group tutor and mentor sessions as well as informational webinars. I actually should use them more than I do. My previous online program was 10 years ago when a fully online program was less common, and the program was more designed for students who were near campus (which I was not). But, in both programs (and in undergrad) I found that reaching out to professors was the best way for me to get a better understanding of what they were looking for in an assignment, or if I needed any additional information.
Q: How has your life experience outside of academia contributed to your perspective in the classroom?
A: Having professional experience has been a huge asset in my graduate programs. I actually started graduate school right after undergrad, but after one semester I dropped out. A combination of life-reasons (moving) and being burnt out (I had been a student non-stop for over 18 years) led me to look for a job instead of continuing as a full-time graduate student. I am so glad that I made that choice. When I decided to go back to school for my Masters, five years later, I had new experiences which led me to new professional interests, and those led me to an educational trajectory I never would have been on previously.
Q: In what ways do you feel your nontraditional status has provided unique advantages or strengths in your college journey?
A: My nontraditional status started when I was in undergrad. I was the traditional college-age student, but my journey had many stops. I left home for a private university on the east coast with visions of being pre-law, and after one year at my first school, I decided to stay home and attend our state school the following year. I also changed my major/focus from pre-law to fashion design. That summer, I transferred to my third school, another private college (still focused on fashion design), this time on the west coast. After a semester at that school, I was miserable and went back home, back to my state school for the second semester of my sophomore year. Next, I left home again, back to the east coast, to a city university and once again changed my major (this time to forensic science). I ended up graduating from that school three years (and one more major change – forensic psychology) later.
Although at the time I felt somewhat lost and really unsure of what I was doing, when I look back now, I think I was pretty brave to chase different interests and dreams and move all over the place. Waiting until I was more mature and professionally focused led me to choose a graduate program that I knew I was interested in and was worth investing in. As someone who has reviewed a lot of resumes in my professional career, I know that where you get your undergraduate degree really doesn’t matter and an interesting story is a lot more intriguing than a resume that looks like everyone else’s.
Q: What strategies or techniques have you found effective in managing time and maintaining focus as a nontraditional student?
A: Having set schoolwork times and a place separated from my family (if they are awake) to do my schoolwork is a must. I get distracted by them easily, so I separate myself. I also make a point of putting my phone away, so I don’t get distracted by notifications or just daydream scrolling. I make a point of doing some schoolwork each day so that the weekend isn’t consumed by it. I typically wake up two hours before my family to do schoolwork/reading. Then, if I am not done by the weekend, I will spend some time Saturday morning finishing my assignment. That usually allows me to feel like I still have a weekend. I am a morning person, so this works better for me than trying to stay up late to do work. I also put meetings with my professor or other live school events on both my work and my home calendars so that time is blocked off (e.g., work knows I can’t work late that night, and my family doesn’t expect me to be present or making dinner).
Q: Looking back at your college experience, what advice would you give to other nontraditional students?
A: Above all else, there is no set path that works for everyone. You need to figure out your own path that works for you, your goals, and your life. The availability of online programs has made college so much more attainable, but just as you would with any investment of time and money, you need to do your research on the school and program. Talk to current/previous students, and learn about the school’s policies regarding dropping classes, taking breaks, etc.