Nontraditional student

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A nontraditional student is a term originating in North America, that refers to a category of students at colleges and universities.

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) notes that there are varying definitions of nontraditional student. Nontraditional students are contrasted with traditional students who "earn a high school diploma, enroll full time immediately after finishing high school, depend on parents for financial support, and either do not work during the school year or work part time".[1][2] The NCES categorized anyone who satisfies at least one of the following as a nontraditional student:[1]

  • Delays enrollment (does not enter postsecondary education in the same calendar year that he or she finished high school)
  • Attends part-time for at least part of the academic year
  • Works full-time (35 hours or more per week) while enrolled
  • Is considered financially independent for purposes of determining eligibility for financial aid
  • Has dependents other than a spouse (usually children, but may also be caregivers of sick or elderly family members)
  • Is a single parent (either not married or married but separated and has dependents)
  • Does not have a high school diploma (completed high school with a GED or other high school completion certificate or did not finish high school)

By this definition, the NCES determined that 73% of all undergraduates in 1999–2000 could be considered nontraditional, representing the newly "typical" undergraduate.[3] This remained consistent the following years: 72% in 2003–2004, 72% for 2007–2008, and 74% for 2011–2012.[4]

The nontraditional student designation has to a lesser extent been used to refer to socially or educationally disadvantaged students.[5][6]


It is uncertain exactly how or when the term “nontraditional student” was first incorporated into educational language. However, it is thought that K. Patricia Cross is responsible for the phrase becoming the accepted and appropriate term to describe adult students.[7]


The typical college student is no longer a full-time student who enrolls immediately after high school, lives on-campus and who has limited family, employment, and financial obligations.[8][2]

Regarding the 2011-2012 demographics distribution of nontraditional undergraduate students in the United States, the following were identified by the National Center for Education Statistics:[4]

  • 49% dependent and 51% independent
  • 28% has dependent(s) and 72% has no dependent
  • 15% single with dependent and 85% single with no dependent
  • 91% high school graduate and 9% high school equivalency
  • 66% delayed postsecondary enrollment less than one year and 34% delayed postsecondary enrollment one year or more
  • 57% fulltime student 43% part-time student
  • 26% worked full time, 36% worked part time, and 38% did not work.

In 1999–2000, the most common nontraditional characteristics included financial independence (51 percent), part-time attendance (48 percent), and delayed enrollment (46 percent).[9]

The NCES divides tertiary educational institutions into three categories: public, private-non-profit, and private-for-profit (PFP). With regard to the age demographic of students enrolled in these institutions, the NCES uses three age categories: under 25, between 25 and 34, and 35 and older. According to its most recent publication, in a section called The Condition of Education 2013,"most nontraditional students are enrolled in PFP’s. In fact, for the fall enrollment in 2011, in four-year PFP institutions 71% full-time and 78% part-time students were at least 25 years old or older. In two-year PFP institutions, 52% full-time and 61% part-time students were also included in this 'nontraditional' category."[3]

Special characteristics[edit]

Nontraditional students frequently have different characteristics than traditional students, experience different barriers, and have different instructional and campus support needs than traditional students.[10][11][12]

While many institutions offer programs for nontraditional students and services in response to their specific needs,[13] it is frequently observed that traditional higher education programs and policies are geared toward, and the outcome of, the previous era when traditional students were the main market for higher education.[14] Institutional barriers most frequently identified in research include difficulty obtaining financial support, negative attitudes toward adult learners, a general lack of resources at times and places suitable to adult learners, and recognition of prior learning and academic credentials.[15][14]

Situational barriers most frequently experienced by adult nontraditional students typically include managing multiple conflicting responsibilities in addition to their studies (e.g., life and work responsibilities and roles), financial problems and limited financial aid options for nontraditional students, lack of adequate and affordable childcare services, and lack of support from others.[15][14]

Attitudinal barriers most frequently identified in research include low self-esteem and negative attitudes about being an adult learner.[15][14]

Barriers related to academic skills most frequently discussed in the literature include a lack of knowledge and experience in literacy, numeracy, and computer-related skills, accessing and understanding information, critical and reflective thinking, essay writing, and writing examinations and tests.[15][14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b National Center for Education Statistics. "Nontraditional Undergraduates", Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. (p. 2) Accessed 30 Sept 2013.
  2. ^ a b Pascarella, Ernest T.; Terenzini, Patrick T (Winter 1998). "Studying College Students in the 21st Century: Meeting New Challenges". The Review of Higher Education. 21 (2): 151.
  3. ^ a b National Center for Education Statistics. "Nontraditional Undergraduates", Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. (p. 146-7) Accessed 30 Sept 2013.
  4. ^ a b Radford, A. W., Cominole, M., & Skomsvold, P. (2015). Demographic and enrollment characteristics of nontraditional undergraduates: 2011-12.
  5. ^ Kim, K.A. (2002). "ERIC review: Exploring the meaning of "nontraditional" at the community college". Community College Review. 30 (1): 74–89.
  6. ^ Schuetze, Hans G.; Slowey, Maria (2002). "Participation and exclusion: A comparative analysis of non-traditional students and lifelong learners in higher education". Higher Education. 44 (3–4): 309–327.
  7. ^ Ross-Gordon, J.M. (2011). "Research on adult learners: Supporting the needs of a student population that is no longer nontraditional". Association of American Colleges and Universities. 29: 1. Retrieved 2 October 2013.
  8. ^ Yesterday's Nontraditional Student is Today's Traditional Student. Center for Law and Social Policy, June 29, 2011.
  9. ^ National Center for Education Statistics. "Nontraditional Undergraduates", Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. (p. 3) Accessed 09 July 2017.
  10. ^ Kasworm, Carol E. (2003). "Setting the Stage: Adults in Higher Education". New Directions for Student Services. 2003 (102): 3–8.
  11. ^ Serving adult learners in higher education: Principles of effectiveness. Executive summary (PDF). Chicago, IL: Council for Adult and Experiential Learning. 2000. Retrieved 8 July 2017.
  12. ^ Panacci, Adam G. (2017). "Adult Students in Mixed-Age Postsecondary Classrooms: Implications for Instructional Approaches". College Quarterly. 20 (2). Retrieved 8 July 2017.
  13. ^ Principles in Practice: Assessing Adult Learning Focused Institutions. Case Studies (PDF). Chicago, IL: Council for Adult and Experiential Learning. 2005. Retrieved 8 July 2017.
  14. ^ a b c d e Chao, E. L.; DeRocco, E. S.; Flynn, M. K. (2007). "Adult learners in higher education: Barriers to success and strategies to improve results" (PDF). Employment and Training Administration Occasional Paper 2007-03. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Labor, Employment and Training Administration.
  15. ^ a b c d MacKeracher, D.; Suart, T.; Potter, J. (2006). "State of the field review: Barriers to participation in adult learning" (PDF).

Further reading[edit]

  • Chao, E. L., DeRocco, E. S., & Flynn, M. K. (2007). Adult Learners in Higher Education: Barriers to Success and Strategies to Improve Results (Employment and Training Administration Occasional Paper 2007-03). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Labor, Employment and Training Administration. Accessed at
  • Donaldson, J. F., & Townsend, B. K. (2007). Higher Education Journals' Discourse about Adult Undergraduate Students. The Journal of Higher Education, 78(1), 27-50.
  • Kasworm, C. E. (1990). Adult Undergraduates in Higher Education: A Review of Past Research Perspectives. Review of Educational Research, 60(3), 345-372.
  • Ross-Gordon, J. M. (2011). Research on Adult Learners: Supporting the Needs of a Student Population that is No Longer Nontraditional. Peer Review, 13(1), 26. Accessed at

External links[edit]