What Is a Nontraditional Student?

  • Nearly three-fourths of U.S. college students can be considered nontraditional.
  • The nontraditional student definition isn’t set in stone and varies across institutions.
  • Challenges facing nontrads today include high tuition costs and balancing school and work.
  • Prospective nontrads should prioritize colleges offering flexibility and affordability.

If asked to describe the typical college student, most people would probably think of a young adult who lives on campus and pays for their tuition with help from their parents.

But not all college students look like this. In fact, nontraditional students, or those who differ from the traditional student image, make up the majority of postsecondary students in the U.S. A 2015 study by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) concluded that 74% of college students could be considered nontraditional.

So what exactly does this mean? The answer is more complicated than you may think.

Nontraditional Student Definition

There’s no easy way to define a nontraditional student. While some colleges consider all students above a certain age nontraditional, others look at factors such as income level, marital status, or whether a student earned a high school diploma.

NCES defines a nontraditional college student using three main criteria:

Enrollment Patterns
When and how you enroll at a college can determine whether you’re a traditional or nontraditional student. Those who enroll one or more years after graduating from high school or those who attend college on a part-time basis are considered nontraditional.
Financial and Family Status
Traits relating to family and money that NCES considers nontraditional include having one or more dependent children, being a single parent, working a full-time job while in school, or being financially independent.
High School Graduation Status
If you received a GED certificate or other high school equivalency diploma instead of a regular high school diploma, you would count as a nontraditional college student.

If you meet at least one of the above criteria, you’ll fall under the nontraditional student umbrella in the eyes of the U.S. government.

But many schools have their own definitions of nontraditional students. Whereas some colleges maintain stricter criteria, others permit students to self-identify as nontraditional.

In addition to the three categories listed above, here are some factors that institutions and organizations have used to determine nontraditional student status:

  • Commute Time to Campus: Students who commute a particular distance to campus, such as more than 10 miles, may be considered nontraditional.
  • Living Situation: Some schools consider all students who do not live on campus or in university housing nontraditional.
  • Age: Typically, students who start college at age 25 or older are labeled nontraditional.
  • College Experience: Those who went to college previously but did not complete their degree are often considered nontraditional transfer students.
  • Family History: Though less common, a school may refer to first-generation college students as nontraditional students.
  • Income: If you or your family makes under a certain amount of money each year, your school may categorize you as a nontraditional student.

Ultimately, the school you attend will determine whether you are a nontraditional student or not.

Key Challenges Facing Nontraditional Students

Nontraditional college students often face more challenges than traditional students. Below are some of the biggest hurdles nontraditional students must work to overcome.

Balancing School, Life, and Work

For many traditional students, going to college is a full-time job. But nontraditional students — many of whom are older and more established — must deal with additional obstacles when it comes to balancing their academic endeavors with their personal and professional obligations.

Finding the time to go to work, attend classes, take care of your children, study, and sleep — all within 24 hours — can feel impossible for busy nontraditional students.

Financing a College Education

Like many traditional students, nontraditional students often worry about whether they can afford a college education. After all, college is a huge investment.

According to the College Board’s 2019 Trends in College Pricing report, the average cost of tuition at public, four-year institutions is $10,440 for in-state students and $26,820 for out-of-state students. Private universities are even more expensive, costing an average of $36,880 per year.

Those who have children or other family members to care for may find it especially difficult to pay for their education.

Learning Modern Technology

Technology is constantly evolving. If you’ve been out of school for a long time, you may be surprised by how different college is today — especially in terms of the technology students are expected to know how to use.

For example, most schools rely on learning management systems, such as Blackboard and Canvas, to disseminate information on course requirements, schedules, grades, and other vital updates. Having a rough sense of how to work these systems can help you adapt faster to your academic program and your new life as a student.

Most likely, you’ll also be expected to have reliable internet access, a fully functional computer with programs like Microsoft Word and PowerPoint, and a webcam (should you opt for remote or online classes).

Finding Self-Confidence

Most nontraditional students are older than their more traditional peers, which can make them feel awkward and out of place. As a nontrad, you should try to maintain a high level of self-confidence so that you can succeed in your academic pursuits and learn to take pride in your identity as a student.

Age is irrelevant — you are never too old to learn, change careers, or follow your passion. It’s also worth reminding yourself that nontraditional learners account for the majority of college students, so many of your peers are sharing similar experiences.

Read more to learn the 4 Tips for Choosing a College as a Nontraditional Student.

By Alicia Hibbard
Alicia Hibbard