Traditional & Non-Traditional Students in Higher Ed

Instructor: Della McGuire

Della has been teaching secondary and adult education for over 20 years. She holds a BS in Sociology, MEd in Reading, and is ABD on the MComm in Storytelling.

In this lesson, we will differentiate between the characteristics of traditional and non-traditional students in higher education. We will also discuss common methods that teachers can use to provide effective instruction to the two populations within the same classroom.

The Thicker Envelope

Since the beginning of her senior year of high school, Nikki has walked excitedly out to the mailbox every day, hoping she gets that big thick envelope that lets her know she was accepted into her first choice of universities. Her grandmother Cora is very supportive of Nikki's decision to go to the nearby state college and walks with her out to the mailbox every day. Cora is hoping to get the same thick welcome packet for herself. In fact, Nikki's uncle, Cora's youngest son Dale, is across town taking the same daily walk of anticipation. They are all hoping to go to the same school so they can check in with each other.

Some students go to college after starting a career
a man in a tie

Traditional and Non-traditional Students

Nikki is a traditional student because she is going straight to college as soon as she graduates high school. While this is the common perception of a college student's experience, this is becoming scarcely the majority. If you consider other criteria typically included in what we may consider non-traditional, fewer students fit the idea of traditional these days.

While the most typical criterion to be considered a non-traditional student is to be over age 25, other criteria may be included to better understand this growing demographic. Some factors included when defining non-traditional students in higher education might be having dependents or children, being married, having current or former military service, being an orphan or ward of the court, having no high school diploma or a GED, working full time, and being financially and/or legally emancipated from one's parents.

some students go to college after starting a family
image of a pregnant woman reading a textbook

The Aging College Population

The statistical rise of non-traditional students is often attributed to a number of causes. Some, like Uncle Dale, went to work right after finishing high school and come back to college to seek better advancement opportunities. Sometimes this work is in military service, which provides financial aid for students after serving as soldiers. Many people have financial barriers to higher education, and so work becomes more necessary to low-income students. Uncle Dale is hoping to get offered more promotion opportunities with his degree.

Another reason people postpone higher education is to have a family. Cora finished high school, got married and soon after had Nikki's mom and then Uncle Dale. She was raising her family when she might have gone to college. Also, many older students are seeking life enrichment courses that are offered at many universities free to seniors. Sometimes older students want to learn new skills in technology to improve work prospects or even to use social media to communicate with loved ones. Cora wants to take an introduction to computer class so she can share recipes and crochet patterns with her crew.

some students go to college late in life to learn new skills
image of elderly hands typing

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