The rise of the non-traditional student

If you close your eyes and try to envision what a typical college student looks like, you probably picture a young adult, fresh from high school and ready to conquer the world. However, times are changing, and so are the demographics and circumstances of today's quintessential college scholar.

According to a new report from the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance (ACSFA), as many as 73 percent of U.S. students enrolled in degree programs today are considered "non-traditional students." This includes any student who meets one or more of the following criteria outlined by the National Center for Education Statistics:

  • Delayed enrollment
  • Attends college part-time
  • Works full-time
  • Has dependents
  • Is financially independent of parents
  • Is a single parent
  • Does not have a high school diploma or G.E.D.

And many schools have broadened this even further to include veterans, adult learners, married students, those returning to their studies after a break, and anyone else who doesn't meet the standard collegiate mold.

Non-traditional students: The underserved majority

The fact that 73 percent of students are considered "non-traditional" means that the non-traditional student has actually become quite common. Unfortunately, this growing demographic is often underserved in the higher education market, which has historically failed to cater to them by not offering enough evening classes, flexible programs, or financial aid opportunities.

And it may be getting worse. According to a recent article from The Atlantic, some educators and policy-makers are pushing initiatives that would make financial aid even harder to attain for part-time students. The initiative, referred to as the "Full-time is Fifteen" program, would require students to complete 15 credits per semester to be considered full-time, instead of the usual 12. While meant to curb student drop-outs by encouraging them to graduate within four years, enacting this measure would likely have unintended consequences, mostly by limiting the already meager aid currently available to students who can only take classes part-time due to budgetary or time constraints.

As the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance points out in their report to the U.S. Congress and Secretary of Education, college attainment rates have remained relatively stagnant for young adults, while growth in college degree attainment in competing countries has skyrocketed. This has lead the U.S. to fall further behind global competitors in number of adults with degrees. If not stopped, this trend can only perpetuate a whole host of problems that plague our nation and its citizens. The ACSFA report states: "Stagnant or falling degree attainment rates, particularly among young Americans, threaten the nation's overall global competitiveness and further exacerbate inequality in income distribution." Creating additional roadblocks for non-traditional students only stands to make problems worse.

Services for the non-traditional student

Fortunately, many colleges and universities have gotten the hint and begun implementing programs that are aimed at helping non-traditional students succeed, despite the many obstacles they face. One such school, Southern Illinois University, has an entire page of their website dedicated to the various resources available for non-traditional students, which currently includes live chats with other non-traditional students, a Friday night play group for students with kids, monthly wellness programs, and even specific scholarship programs designed to benefit the non-traditional crowd.

The University of Idaho also caters to its non-traditional population by providing links and support on issues such as child care, insurance options, transportation, and events. Other schools, such as the University of Oregon, try to make things easier for non-traditional students by offering family housing options created specifically for students who are married or have kids, as well as specific financial aid packages for students who need child care assistance while they earn their degree.

Many institutions are creating new options for non-traditional students by launching online degree programs that cater to adult students. For example, the State University of New York system, also known as SUNY, now collectively offers over 150 degree programs and 12,000 courses online, including both degree completion and hybrid degree programs. Non-traditional students often choose to earn their degree online simply because these programs can offer more convenience and flexibility than their brick-and-mortar counterparts, making it easier to attend school while maintaining career or family obligations.

The fact is, graduating from college isn't easy, and doing so as a non-traditional student poses even more challenges. However, colleges and universities appear to be getting the message when it comes to expanding programs that cater to this growing demographic. Hopefully, that trend will only continue as non-traditional students continue to reach for their educational goals.

"Colleges Are Failing Their Biggest Group of Students," The Atlantic, January 29, 2014, Lila Selim, http://www.theatlantic.com/bachelor/education/archive/2014/01/colleges-are-failing-their-biggest-group-of-students/283435/
"Full-Time is Fifteen," Complete College America, http://www.completecollege.org/gameChangers.html#clickBoxGreen
"Non-Traditional Students," University of Idaho, http://www.uidaho.edu/studentaffairs/nontraditional
"Nontraditional Student Programs," University of Oregon, http://uodos.uoregon.edu/SupportandEducation/NontraditionalStudents/tabid/60/Default.aspx
"Open SUNY debuts with eight fully-online degrees," OnlineDegrees.com, January 22, 2014, Shannon Lee, http://www.onlinedegrees.com/degree360/e-learning-news/open-suny-debuts-eight-fully-online-degrees.html
"Pathways to Success- a Report to the U.S. Congress and Secretary of Education," Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance, February 2012, http://www2.ed.gov/about/bdscomm/list/acsfa/ptsreport2.pdf
"Today's typical college students often juggle work, children and bills with coursework," The Washington Post, Jenna Johnson, September 14, 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/bachelor/education/todays-typical-college-students-often-juggle-work-children-and-bills-with-coursework/2013/09/14/4158c8c0-1718-11e3-804b-d3a1a3a18f2c_story.html