Non-traditional student

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A non-traditional student is an American term referring to a category of students at colleges and universities. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) acknowledges there is no precise definition for non-traditional student, but suggests that part-time status and age are common elements. In a 1996 study, the NCES categorized anyone who satisfies at least one of the following as a non-traditional 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 standard, the NCES determined that 73% of all undergraduates in 1999–2000 could be considered non-traditional, representing the newly "typical" undergraduate.[1] This remained consistent the following years: 72% in 2003-2004, 72% for 2007-2008, and 74% for 2011-2012. [2] Therefore, the NCES defines non-traditional on a continuum based on the number of these characteristics present. Students are considered "minimally non-traditional" if they have only one non-traditional characteristic, "moderately non-traditional" if they have two or three, and "highly non-traditional" if they have four or more.[1]


According to a 2011 journal article written by Jovita M. Ross-Gordon, professor at Texas State University in the Association of American Colleges and Universities publication, it is uncertain exactly how or when the term “non-traditional student” was first incorporated into educational language. However, it is thought that K. Patricia Cross is responsible for the phrase becoming the accepted, appropriate term to describe these students. In 1981, Cross, who has a passion for adult and continuing education, wrote Adults as Learners, in which she intermingled the term “non-traditional” with “lifelong learner.”[3]


According to the Center for Postsecondary and Economic Success, the typical college student is not an 18-year-old, full-time student who has limited family and financial obligations.[4] In 2008, more than one third of undergraduate students were over the age of 25, nearly 25% were parents and half of those parents were single parents.

Regarding the 2011-2012 demographics distribution of non-traditional undergraduate students, the following were identified by the National Center for Education Statistics:[5]

  • 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.

Part-time enrollment, by some definitions a determining factor of non-traditional status, may account for a large proportion of college students. 46% of post-secondary students are enrolled part-time.[1] A considerably higher percentage of part-time students are enrolled in 2-year colleges compared to public 4-year institutions.[6]

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 non-traditional 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 'non-traditional' category."[1]



In many cases, non-traditional students may enroll in tertiary educational institutions without entering a special program. Despite this, many colleges do offer programs for non-traditional students with options for both full-time and part-time study, though both choices are not necessarily available at every institution. In addition, many colleges offer programs within their regular curricula to serve non-traditional students. For example, since 1971, the University of Massachusetts Amherst offers an academic major called the University Without Walls- UMass Amherst that helps non-traditional students complete bachelor's degrees.Women's colleges also offer programs for older women who want to return to school, such as Agnes Scott College's Irene K. Woodruff return-to-college program, Mount Holyoke College's Frances Perkins Program, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College's Women's External Degree Program, Simmons College (Massachusetts)'s Dorothea Lynde Dix Scholars Program, Smith College's Ada Comstock Scholars Program, Bryn Mawr College's Katherine McBride Scholars Program, and Wellesley College's Davis Degree Program. Similarly, Tufts University's REAL program (Resumed Education for Adult Learners) was originally intended to draw young mothers back into higher education, but soon expanded to admit men and women aged 24 or over.

Such programs have become common-place, extending even to colleges in Ivy League universities. Yale University hosts a non-traditional student option through its Eli Whitney Students Program. "Whitney Students" take classes with other undergraduates and may earn either a B.A. or B.S. degree. The Eli Whitney Students Program is small, with only 20-30 students among the 5200 student undergraduate population each year. It is also highly competitive, with an admission rate of less than 10%.[7] Brown University also hosts a similar program called Resumed Undergraduate Education.[8]


In contrast, a few select degree-granting colleges (not merely "programs" or "divisions" within an existing college) are oriented entirely towards non-traditional students. The Columbia University School of General Studies is one example; it is unique in that the college's program is fully and completely integrated with the traditional undergraduate curriculum.[9] Students take the same classes, are taught by the same faculty, and obtain the same degrees as all other Columbia undergraduates (GS students make up approximately 25% of the undergraduate population at Columbia University).[10][11]

The Paul McGhee Division of New York University's School of Professional Studies offers bachelor's degrees in the liberal arts and in professional studies for returning adult students. Unlike other such programs, the McGhee Division has its own faculty and curriculum dedicated exclusively to its adult students.[12]

Fordham University offers programs in undergraduate and professional studies through its School of Professional and Continuing Studies.

The Harvard Extension School offers the ALB and ALM degrees as well as open-enrollment continuing education courses in 60 fields for non-degree seekers. The ALB degree is closely modeled after the AB degree offered through Harvard College, and is deemed the educational equivalent of the same. Although nominally the degrees offered are in "Extension Studies", the Extension School offers concentrations that mostly parallel those offered by the College.

The State University of New York serves non-traditional students with their own college through the multi-campus Empire State College.

Students at these colleges may take all of their courses with other non-traditional students, or may share classes with students from other colleges in the respective university, or some combination of the two. Distance learning also caters to non-traditional students because of the flexibility in scheduling. Among the largest accredited examples is the University of Phoenix.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e National Center for Education Statistics. "Nontraditional Undergraduates", Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. (p. 2) Accessed 17 Jun 2013. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "nces" defined multiple times with different content (see the help page).
  2. ^ Radford, A. W., Cominole, M., & Skomsvold, P. (2015). Demographic and enrollment characteristics of nontraditional undergraduates: 2011-12.
  3. ^ 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. 
  4. ^ Yesterday's Nontraditional Student is Today's Traditional Student. Center for Law and Social Policy, June 29, 2011.
  5. ^ Radford, A. W., Cominole, M., & Skomsvold, P. (2015). Demographic and enrollment characteristics of nontraditional undergraduates: 2011-12.
  6. ^ Table 202: Total fall enrollment in degree-granting institutions, by level of enrollment, sex, attendance status, and type and control of institution: 2009,” Digest of Education Statistics 2010, U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 11 February 2012.
  7. ^ “Eli Whitney Students Program” admissions., n.d. Web. 11 February 2012.
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^ [1]
  12. ^ "Undergraduate Programs". Retrieved 2016-04-26. 

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