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The New Traditional Student Is Nontraditional

By Lauren Landry
May 23, 2018

“Traditional” college students are newly out of high school, on the verge of turning 18, when they excitedly move onto the college campus they plan to call home for the next four years. Or at least that was the narrative. Today’s “traditional” college students are anything but.

More than a third of college students are over the age of 25, and an increasing number are learning virtually, forgoing the campus experience altogether. Nearly three million students are enrolled exclusively in online courses, while another three million are taking at least one online class.

What constitutes a “nontraditional” college student has been debated for decades. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, students are considered nontraditional if they meet one of seven characteristics:

  • Attend college part-time
  • Work full-time while in school
  • Delayed enrollment into postsecondary education
  • Are recognized as financially independent for financial aid purposes
  • Have dependents other than a spouse
  • Are a single parent
  • Passed a General Education Development (GED) exam or earned a certificate of high school completion instead of receiving a standard high school diploma

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The path to bachelor’s degree completion isn’t linear for everyone. Today’s students could be juggling multiple jobs or trying to balance family commitments. They might serve as active members of the military or be focused full-time on fulfilling a lifelong dream. It could even take them 25 years to complete their bachelor’s degree. The thread that ties each experience together is perseverance.

“You can walk to the finish line; you don’t need to run,” says Northeastern alumna Christina McMahon, who graduated with her bachelor’s degree when she was 38 years old and 38 weeks pregnant, with two other children at home. “Even if it’s just one class. Once you find that groove, you can do it. Anyone can.”

The good news is: More people are trying. Adult learners are increasing at a higher rate than degree-seeking students under the age of 25. So while making the decision to go back to school might not be easy, know you aren’t alone in the process.

Tips for Nontraditional Students

If you have decided to complete your bachelor’s degree, here are tips to help you make a more seamless transition to student life.

Choose a Program That Fits Your Lifestyle

If you are trying to juggle work and family commitments, it’s important to find a bachelor’s degree program that can flex to fit your schedule. Working professionals should explore part-time, online, or hybrid options, which offer varying levels of flexibility.

By earning your bachelor’s degree online, you can complete the program on a timeline that works for you—whether that means submitting homework after your children are asleep or limiting your course load to one or two classes per semester. Finding a program that lets you learn at your own speed will make a world of difference.

Ask Your Employer About Tuition Reimbursement

Paying for school can feel overwhelming. One way to alleviate the cost, however, is by asking your employer if they offer a tuition reimbursement program. U.S. companies spend 28 billion dollars annually on educational assistance programs, yet only two to five percent of eligible employees actually take advantage of them.

While stipulations vary by company, such as whether you need to receive a certain grade to receive the maximum benefit, it’s worth asking your boss or human resources department what professional development opportunities are available to employees.

Learn Time Management

Time management is crucial when you’re trying to complete coursework all while balancing other personal and professional commitments. Consider creating a weekly schedule centered around daily tasks that can help you stay on track, such as reading required materials or completing written assignments. Just leave yourself enough room for any expected surprises, like a rush project at work.

And when you can, avoid multitasking. Research shows that switching between tasks can cause a 40 percent loss in productivity, so while you might be compelled to look over your children’s homework while you’re finishing your own, stick to one task at a time.

Leverage Your Institution’s Academic Resources

You don’t need to go through this experience alone. Academic and career advisors can help connect you with scholarship opportunities, determine what prior work experience you might translate into college credit, as well as support you through your degree program to ensure you stay on track.

Don’t hesitate to ask for help. Your advisors want to see you succeed, so reach out whenever necessary.

Prioritize Self-Care   

Trying to juggle work, school, and family isn’t always going to come easy; be kind to yourself. Celebrate your achievements and take breaks when you can, whether that means grabbing dinner with friends or reading something that’s not a textbook. You don’t want to run the risk of burning out.

Just remember: This experience has an endpoint and, on the other side, will be you fulfilling a major personal and professional goal.

Are you interested in earning your bachelor’s degree? Explore our bachelor’s completion programs and learn more about the value of the degree by downloading our guide below.  


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About Lauren Landry
Lauren Landry is the former associate director of content marketing for Northeastern University.