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Non-traditional student


Non-traditional student

A non-traditional student is an American term referring to a category of students at tertiary educational institutions. 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 included 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] 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]


  • History 1
  • Demographics 2
  • Opportunities 3
    • Programs 3.1
    • Colleges 3.2
  • See also 4
  • References 5
  • Further reading 6
  • External links 7


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.”[2]


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.[3] 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. In addition, non-traditional student enrollment has been trending upwards recently, which some observers attribute to the economic downturn.[4]

Part-time enrollment, by some definitions a determining factor of non-traditional status, may account for a large proportion of college students. 46 percent of postsecondary 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.[5]

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%.[6] Brown University also hosts a similar program called Resumed Undergraduate Education.[7]


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.[8] 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). [9][10] Columbia University also offers professional advancement, English language, and Auditing programs for adult learners through its School of Continuing Education.

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 in Extension Studies as well as open-enrollment continuing education courses in 60 fields. 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


  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.
  2. ^ 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. 
  3. ^ Yesterday's Nontraditional Student is Today's Traditional Student. Center for Law and Social Policy, June 29, 2011.
  4. ^ Block, Sandra. "Colleges embrace older students, part timers.", USA today. Accessed 11 February 2012
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ “Eli Whitney Students Program” admissions., n.d. Web. 11 February 2012.
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^ [1]

Further reading

  • Crimaldi, Laura, "Older residents follow Pathway to college", Boston Herald, Sunday, January 4, 2009. About students successes in the College Pathways program at ABCD Learning Works in Boston, Massachusetts.
  • Rogers, Alan, "Non-formal Education: Flexible Schooling Or Participatory Education?", Springer, 2005. ISBN 0-387-24636-3

External links

  • Yesterday's Nontraditional Student is Today's Traditional Student. Center for Law and Social Policy, June 29, 2011.
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