By Paul Culp, MA (Oxon.), CFT, GCDF, CCSP

The “typical” college student isn’t typical anymore.

No longer are the majority of students the ones we’re accustomed to thinking of as the norm—because collegians who proceed directly from high school to higher education as unencumbered teenagers are now outnumbered by “non-traditional” students.

According to HigherEd Direct, “The demographic profile of students at US colleges and universities has changed dramatically in the past decade. The majority of college students have shifted to an older, more diversified pool who are seeking degrees while juggling other responsibilities, such as work and family commitments.”

The “Who” of the Non-traditional Student Phenomenon

The National Center for Education Statistics has defined as non-traditional those students who possess some combination of the following characteristics: delaying “enrollment in post-secondary education by a year or more after high school or [attending] part-time…having dependents other than a spouse, being a single parent, working full time while enrolled, or being financially independent from parents…[not receiving] a standard high school diploma but [earning] some type of certificate of completion…This included GED recipients and those who received a high school certificate of completion.”

The NCES projects that by 2025 enrollment for students in the 25-34 age bracket will have increased by 16 percent in the previous decade. Stanford’s The College Puzzle reports that “students over the age of 35, who accounted for 17 percent of all college and graduate students in 2009, are expected to comprise 19 percent of the graduation total by the year 2020.”

The “How” of the Non-traditional Student Phenomenon

While institutions of higher education have often struggled to accommodate non-traditional students, their increased willingness and ability to do so have proven beneficial to traditional and non-traditional students alike and have become a powerful impetus to innovation. HigherEd Direct cites the increased availability of online learning options, accelerated course formats, more flexible scheduling, and “multiple options for financial aid and billing” as adaptive mechanisms established by colleges and universities in response to the growing influx of non-traditional students.

One engine of change is the advocacy group Higher Learning Advocates, which debuted in 2017. Executive director Julie Peller said the group wanted to move higher education away from a compliance-oriented “box checking” orientation and toward an emphasis on student success.

“You can have both innovation and change and be driving for high quality at the same time,” Peller said.

Non-traditional students represent one of the great success stories of contemporary higher education, but they are especially vulnerable to the attrition factors we discussed in More than Half of American College Students Leave Without a Degree. Here’s Why. The heavy costs of college (the reasons for which we detailed in An Arm and a Leg and Your First-born Child: Why College Costs so Much) is especially burdensome to those who cannot rely on parental help with finances. Health problems, family emergencies, and domestic problems are also more likely to strike non-traditional students than the “typical” young, single college student.

A report by U.S. News recommends that non-traditional students considering their college options look carefully at what a particular institution offers in terms of tutoring, mentoring, and technical support during evenings and on weekends to accommodate students who work during the day; the availability of teachers outside normal working hours; and whether there are opportunities for community-building activities pertinent to non-traditional students.

The Coaching Educator knows all about non-traditional students…

Two of us here at TCE, founder/president Rebecca M. Carroll and your genial host, senior editor Paul Culp, were non-traditional students in our day, and in addition to our credentials and experience in the educational field, we’re certified as career services professionals. We can help you explore new career paths and learning opportunities, evaluate colleges and programs of study, pursue your college admissions objectives, and navigate a financial aid process that can present unique challenges for students who haven’t proceeded directly from high school to college.

To learn more about our philosophy and capabilities, be sure to watch our free webinars, listen to our podcasts, sign up for our four-week College App Boot Camp, consider our Ultimate Programs and our special services for athletes and performing-arts students, and book a consultation to hear what we can do for you and how we do it. Keep reading this blog, and look for us on social media (see links below) as we keep our clients and admirers advised of new developments in our effort to help students get into and succeed at the right school.

Paul Culp is certified as a global career development facilitator and writes about college admissions, college costs, financial aid, and college life in general for The Coaching Educator team. A former journalist and corporate ghostwriter who now operates Shenandoah Proofreading, Editing & Composition Services (SPECS), he has also been a humanities teacher at all levels from university down to sixth grade. Paul has degrees from Oxford University, Jacksonville State University, and Samford University, and also is certified as a fitness trainer.

Recommended Reading About College Admissions and Scholarships

Culp, Paul. “An Arm and a Leg and Your First-born Child: Why College Costs So Much, The Coaching Educator, http://tce.local/2018/09/06/an-arm-and-a-leg-and-your-first-born-child-why-college-costs-so-much/

Culp, Paul. “Eat Your Alphabet Soup: FAFSA, EFC, COA, and Other Delights,” The Coaching Educator, 6 November 2018, http://tce.local/2018/11/06/eat-your-alphabet-soup-fafsa-efc-coa-and-other-delights/

Culp, Paul. “More Than Half of American College Students Leave Without a Degree. Here’s Why,” The Coaching Educator, 8 September 2018, http://tce.local/2018/09/08/more-than-half-of-american-college-students-leave-without-a-degree-heres-why/

Culp, Paul. “Remedial Nation: The Ghastly State of College Preparedness,” The Coaching Educator, 19 January 2019, http://tce.local/2019/01/19/remedial-nation-the-ghastly-state-of-college-preparedness/

Culp, Paul. “Types of Financial Aid: A Very Short Primer,” The Coaching Educator, 14 September 2018, http://tce.local/2018/09/14/types-of-financial-aid-a-very-short-primer/

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