What Makes a Person a Nontraditional Student?

Even if you're a nontraditional student, you're still like any other student at the end of the day.

Flickr user Tokyo Times

Depending on your chosen college, you might hear quite a bit about “nontraditional” students. These are students who are considered to be outside the “normal” parameters for college students. And believe me, it doesn’t take much to be outside those parameters. If your typical college student is full-time, straight out of high school into college, and between 18 and 22 of age throughout undergrad, you can see how little changes to that formula might affect the status. Nontraditional students are normally determined by seven factors, which can be mixed and matched.

Delays Enrollment

If someone decides to take a gap year before heading to college, then technically that student is nontraditional. However, most people won’t think anything of a small delay such as a gap year because the student will still be around the same age.

Attends Part-Time

If someone drops down to part-time student status—whether it’s for a semester or a year—then that person is considered nontraditional.

Work Full-Time

Anyone who works 35 hours a week or more while attending college is nontraditional.

Financially Independent

If someone claims themselves as financially independent from their parents for financial aid purposes, that someone is nontraditional.

Has Dependents (Other Than Spouse)

Having to take care of someone else makes a student nontraditional. The dependents are often children, sick or dependent family members, and elderly family members.

Single Parent

If you are raising children on your own and going to school, you are considered nontraditional.

No High School Diploma

If someone goes to college with a GED (or equivalent) or has not finished high school, they are nontraditional.

Again, any one of these factors can be at play. They are frequently mixed together. For example, it is really difficult—although it can be done at great personal cost—to work full time AND maintain a full course load, so you will probably see part-time students working full-time more so than full-time students. And many times, students who are financially independent or have dependents likely didn’t go straight to college after high school, therefore making them older than the traditional college student. However, each of these variables can stand alone.

Some colleges have specific programs for nontraditional students. The University of Phoenix is geared toward those students who are unable to make it to traditional class settings. It largely utilizes online courses that allow its students to learn and study the material when it is convenient for them. Schools can choose to have nontraditional students educated in the same format as traditional students, or they can create completely separate programs that are taught by different professors. Much of that depends on which nontraditional categories a student falls into. A part-time student, for example, will likely be able to attend the same classes as her full-time friends. However, night classes might be the only way someone with a full-time day job can attend lectures.

Some schools do a better job than others do of encouraging nontraditional to attend. The availability of night and online classes is an enormous help. Getting both traditional and nontraditional students in the same classrooms rather than keeping them separate facilitates more feeling of belonging and unity, which, depending on how nontraditional a student is, can be a serious issue.

Much of the undergraduate student population actually falls into one (or more) of these categories, leaving some to wonder about the validity of the term “nontraditional.” The fact of the matter is that all students are making their class schedules work around whatever else is going on in their lives. All students are striving to learn something in their time at college with the ultimate goal being that they receive a degree.

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