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Expert Advice for Non-Traditional Students

Feb. 8, 2014
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The traditional college student is between 18 and 22 years old. For this student, college follows immediately after high school and will last four years, a place to grow in maturity as much as knowledge. The amount of students who follow this timeline, however, has drastically diminished. Now, only 29 percent of the roughly 20 million college students qualify as “traditional.” The other 71 percent—also known as “non-traditional”—are elongating their four years by enrolling as a part-time student or are returning to school after time-off. Instead of four years, it now takes an average of six years to complete a college degree.

» MORE: How to know if your college choice is affordable?

But have colleges been paying close enough attention to this shift in student demographics? How do these non-traditional students maneuver college to make their most of their tuition dollars? NerdScholar asked university experts to offer advice on what to expect and how to make the most of college as a non-traditional student.


1. “Education is a marathon, not a sprint.”

So says Eric Chen, Associate Professor of Business Administration at the University of Saint Joseph. While parenthood, health problems, or financial strain may pose significant hurdles to obtaining a college degree, “the important thing,” Chen says, “is to keep your eye on the prize—graduation.”

A lapse in time between education years may also leave students feeling out of place among their classmates and illiterate in the latest technology, however they shouldn’t discredit their decision to take a leave of absence from school in the first place. “The gaps should never be frowned upon, for each learner differs in their approach to their own educational experience,” says Chad Lassiter, professor of Race Relations at the University of Pennsylvania.

» MORE: How first-generation students can navigate admissions

2. Don’t discount real world experience.

Time away from school can often give students invaluable perspective and a greater sense of purpose. Many non-traditional students return to school with more defined career goals and a wealth of practical experience, which even “has the potential to help the younger students with their overall growth and development,” Lassiter says. Non-traditional students are capable of discerning what is important and can better envision how their education will transfer over to real-world work.

In general, says Shari Fox, executive vice president of O’More College of Design, “non-traditional students are more focused, prepared, and grateful to be pursuing their educational goals.” Returning to school is a very conscious decision for non-traditional students, arguably more so than other students. They are very aware of education’s costs and subsequent benefits.

» MORE: Your college choice: How to see if a school is legit

3. Budget your finances.

A budget is important for every student, but with a greater likelihood of increased expenses, non-traditional students should be especially meticulous about their finances. They also often carry much more responsibility, if not all of it, for tuition costs as compared to their younger counterparts. To start, students should list all sources of income, as well as their household expenses, to understand what type of education they can afford—a reduced course load, for example, can lower costs. Karen Hunt, director of admissions at Wittenberg University, advises students not to overlook any “hidden costs,” such as commuting or child-care costs when drafting up a budget.

If students fall short, loans may be an option. However, Eric Chen warns students to proceed with caution when taking out loans. “My general rule of thumb is that you should only take on debt equal to 1.5x-2.0x your first year’s salary after graduation,” he says.


4. Make time for networking

Between class and a part-time or full-time job, and maybe a family, non-traditional students often have less time to spare for school-related activities. However, if they are able to make room in their schedules for campus involvement, non-traditional students should consider joining student chapters of professional organizations. “By doing so, students have the opportunity to network with their faculty and industry professionals,” Shari Fox says. “They become part of the campus community and gain valuable support for future careers.”

Less obvious opportunities for resume boosters are important to consider, too. Student-led clubs and organizations can be a means to demonstrate leadership and explore interests, which can affect students’ future career choices. And, while these connections may not have immediate results, they could serve students well in the future. On a more basic level, campus involvement and use of campus facilities, such as the athletic facility, provide outlets for stress relief and add to the overall college experience. As Karen Hunt notes, taking advantage of these options allows students to “make the best use of [their] investment in the college.”


5. Take advantage of college support services.

One of the biggest support systems for non-traditional students is other non-traditional students. Connecting with students who have shared experiences will offer solutions and mutual empathy. Beyond students, Karen Hunt stresses that “college campuses are loaded with support services.” The student services and career services center, professors, counselors, and student support groups are good places to start. And, “if a support organization doesn’t exist,” Saint Joseph’s Eric Chen says, “perhaps you should start one!”


Eric Chen is currently an Associate Professor of Business Administration at the University of Saint Joseph in West Hartford, Connecticut. Eric holds a J.D. from the University of Connecticut School of Law, both M.B.A and Executive Management & Technology degrees from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and an A.B. from Harvard University. 

Chad Dion Lassiter is a professor of Race Relations at the University of Pennsylvania and West Chester University. He is on the Board of Trustees of the Community College of Philadelphia.

Karen Hunt is the Executive Director of Admission at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio. Wittenberg is a nationally recognized university for the liberal arts and sciences and was recently ranked fourth in the nation by The Princeton Review for the “Most Accessible Professors.”

Shari Fox is the Executive Vice President of O’More College of Design. She manages the day-to-day operations at O’More, which includes the academics, finance, administration, and admissions areas, and ensures that O’More upholds key academic standards.


Data provided by the Education Department.

College students image courtesy of Shutterstock.