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The Rise of the Non-traditional Student

Statistics show an enormous rise in the proportion of "non-traditional" students on our nation's college campuses in recent years. Non-traditional students now make up the majority of the nation's undergraduates, and this demographic among university students is only increasing in prominence. The rise of the non-traditional student has naturally revolutionized access to university-level education in this country and required universities to make some adjustments to accommodate this new type of student.

What is a non-traditional student?

It has typically been assumed that a traditional college student is between the ages of 18 and 22 and attends college full time. Also, another defining characteristic of a "traditional" student is that he or she is financially dependent on parents. On the other hand, a non-traditional student will typically feature some of the following characteristics:

  • Financial independence
  • Be a year or several years out of high school before beginning university studies
  • Part-time enrollment status
  • Be a parent or have some type of dependent(s)
  • Be married
  • Meet admissions requirements with a GED rather than a high school diploma


Any of these characteristics can label a student as "non-traditional", and it is estimated that around 75 percent of undergrads today have on of these characteristics. 

Non-traditional student statistics

A study conducted in 2011 by Complete College America showed that only about 25 percent of all undergraduate students were traditional students. More data from the National Center for Education Statistics revealed that more students were studying in two year programs than in four year programs. In 2012, over 40 percent of undergraduate student were studying at two year educational institutions like community colleges. Another significant factor that disqualified many students from the "traditional" distinction was that many students were over the age of 21 as of the fall semester of 2011.

Performance of non-traditional students

Non-traditional students face a different set of challenges than traditional students. Because they are often working as well as going to school, they must learn to manage their time effectively if they are to perform well and progress in their degree programs. They typically have more responsibilities to deal with than traditional students, including caring for children or other family members.

However, the increased responsibilities placed on non-traditional students do not necessarily result in poorer performance. Non-traditional students often feel an increased need to make the most out of their educations and finish their degrees as soon as possible because of financial constraints and because of their ages. Their life experiences and age often make them more mature than traditional students, who have much more freedom to take their time in pursuing their degrees and change their majors. 

According to study conducted by The DreamCatchers Group in 2011, non-traditional students report greater satisfaction with their university studies than their traditional counterparts. This is in part due to the fact that non-traditional students tend to be more focused and serious about getting their degree as soon as possible. Also, non-traditional students are often working in areas related to their field of study, and this enhances the experience of academic study in their particular disciplines. 

Going back to school

"Non-traditional" is clearly the new norm when it comes to undergraduate studies at American universities. Those who do no fit in with the traditional student profile shouldn't feel reluctant to go back to school or out of place on a university campus. Even at some of the nation's most prestigious universities, non-traditional students are being accommodated and welcomed like never before as undergraduate demographics continue to shift radically.

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