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Who Are Nontraditional Students?

Oct 8, 2010 Jennifer Williamson, Distance Columnist | 2 Comments

What do you picture when you think of a “typical college student”? If you’re like most people, you probably think of someone between the ages of 18 and 22 who enters college directly after graduating high school—someone who lives in dorms, attends school full-time, and has no plans to take on full-time work or family obligations until after graduation.

This may be our idea of the “typical” college student. But according to, 37% of students enrolled in American colleges as of 2003 were “nontraditional”—studies with different definitions of “nontraditional” suggest that the numbers are even higher, approximately 12 out of 15 million. “Nontraditional” is a label that encompasses many different types of students, however—with different agendas and needs. Here’s an overview of who’s considered “nontraditional” in today’s college classrooms.

Working professionals

Many nontraditional students postponed college to go to work. They may decide to earn a degree later so they can earn more in an existing job, advance to a higher position, or make a resume more competitive. They’re likely to take classes part-time, online, or at night to accommodate full-time work schedules. Some working professionals are lucky enough to have employers who will reimburse or contribute toward tuition.

Single parents

Working Mother

The number of nontraditional students in college classrooms is growing—and they’re changing our idea of the “typical” college student.

Single parents may attend college to fill a gap in work history, as well as add to their qualifications for when they’re ready to rejoin the workforce. Because they don’t have a spouse to rely on for childcare, it can be very difficult for single parents to attend traditional classes outside of children’s classroom hours—if the kids are old enough to go to school—and some single parents are also full-time employees. Because of the demands on them, single parents often find online degree programs especially useful. Some mom's are going back and getting their Master of Science or Nursing or graduate business degree from universities such as this one.

Military personnel

The US government provides significant education benefits to personnel in all military fields—and many people join the military primarily or exclusively because they want those benefits. While it was once the norm for military personnel to wait to go to college after being discharged—there weren’t many other options until recently—today’s military recruits often choose to attend school online during their deployment. This is a particularly efficient use of time—it allows military students to leave the military with a degree in hand, ready to join the workforce—rather than having to postpone earning money for four more years while they earn a degree.

Home-schooled students

Today’s home-schooled students are often used to online education. It’s becoming more and more common for parents to use online classes and programs to supplement their own teaching, and some home-schooled students attend online high schools full-time before going to college. Because of this, many home-schooled students elect to attend online college as well. Others, however, choose to get a more traditional college experience. Home-schooled students may be the same age as traditional students, but they can be quite different—they don’t enter college with the same background as a traditional student. Still, many colleges have procedures in place to gauge home-schooled students based on their particular histories and achievements.


It’s not unusual these days to see older adults coming back to school—to pursue a degree they put off until retirement, perhaps, or until children left the nest. Older adults are changing what it means to be “college-aged” and they often bring considerable experience and maturity to a classroom, as well as a different perspective than that of a traditional student. And this demographic is growing. Today, many new college enrollees are over 55.

Financial independents

A financially independent student may look like a traditional student—but their situations are quite different. These students may be the expected age for college, but they are receiving little or no financial support from their parents. Because of this, financially independent students may have to work full-time while attending classes, worry more about money, or have higher debt loads than their peers.

The number of nontraditional students in college classrooms is growing—and they’re changing our idea of the “typical” college student. Today’s typical college student could be a stay-at-home mom, a part-time student and full-time Human Resources specialist, or a logistics officer in the US Army. You never know when you might encounter one of these nontraditional students in your classroom—and how they may change your perspective on school and life.


Simon Tam Over a year ago

I dropped out of by Bachelor of Arts program a few months before graduation to tour the world in a rock band. A few years later, I finished my degree at another school while on tour.These days, there is no "typical."

le mademoiselle Over a year ago

Congrats Simon!! I wish my break between my Associates to my Bachelors Degree (currently working on Bachelors) was as exciting as your break!!! LOL

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