March 21, 2018

Nontraditional Students Are the New Majority | From the Bell Tower

If you picture the average college student as an 18-22 year-old who lives on campus, attends day classes, and is up until the wee hours of the night, you may need to readjust your thinking.

Williston State College is a small higher education institution located in a somewhat remote western region of North Dakota. It has a problem that many higher education institutions would like to have. Three years ago the institution’s enrollment was so low that the president asked employees to park in front of the campus so it would look more robust. Today, it’s a different story. Now if employees forget to park in the back lot, they’ll get a hefty ticket. What happened? Just a game-changing oil boom that has brought a new industry and thousands of new laborers to this part of the country.

Hundreds of oil workers come to Williston State College daily for safety courses and other training. What makes this story of interest, other than the good fortune of Williston and their challenge to meet the demand, is the nature of their new student population. To a person, it is virtually all nontraditional students. For Williston and many others like it, their future existence could depend on this new majority.

Not your typical higher education
Ask most people to describe the typical college student and you’ll probably hear something about a recent high school graduate, someone in their early20s who lives on or close to campus, and whose life is a mix of daytime classes and campus social activities. Walk into the library at many of our institutions, and that is a description of the people we are likely to see.

But the reality is that the traditional 18-22 year-old student is now the minority in higher education. According to the National Center for Education Statistics there are 17.6 million undergraduates. Thirty-eight percent of those enrolled in higher education are over the age of 25 and 25 percent are over the age of 30. The share of all students who are over age 25 is projected to increase another twenty-three percent by 2019.

Like Williston State, many other community colleges and universities see great potential in adults who want to increase their credentials, who are unemployed and in search of new career opportunities and returning military veterans. The New York Times, in a continuing education special report published last week, reported how many institutions are ramping up their continuing education offerings. The outlook moving forward is for an even larger nontraditional student body.

Not without challenges
Before anyone starts thinking that the presence of nontraditional students is some sort of jackpot for higher education, keep in mind that they often bring extra baggage to campus. Unlike the traditional students, where the occasional problems might include binge drinking or excessive rowdiness, nontraditional students bring entirely new issues with which college and university administrators must contend.

According to a recent national report titled “Pathways to Success,” the most significant challenge is retention. One of the three defining characteristics (the other two are age and socioeconomic background) of a nontraditional student is the presence of an at-risk factor, such as  working full-time, raising a child as a single parent or lacking a traditionally earned high school diploma.

The report identifies three areas that describe the core problems associated with nontraditional students:

  • Situational barriers refer to conditions at a given time that limit the student’s ability to access and pursue higher education. Cost and lack of time are the most commonly cited. Other conditions, such as lack of child care for single parents and transportation issues for students with disabilities, also limit the ability of students to engage in postsecondary activities.
  • Institutional barriers consist of practices and procedures which may discourage or exclude students from pursuing postsecondary education. Barriers include problems with scheduling or transportation, the provision of courses that lack relevance or practicality, bureaucratic issues, the number of course requirements, and excessive admission fees.
  • Dispositional barriers refer to student perceptions of their ability to access and complete learning activities. Due to their age, older adults may have negative perceptions of their ability to learn. Students with poor educational experiences may lack interest in learning activities. Adult students become concerned about how younger students will perceive them. Many adults returning to complete college experience anxiety and fear because they have not engaged in postsecondary study for a period of time.

Traditional students may be taking 5 or 6 years to graduate these days, but add up the barriers confronting nontraditional college students and it’s clear that higher education institutions will be challenged to create the support systems needed to help them persist to graduation.

Making progress
The good news is that Pathways to Success identifies a number of programs and innovations that contribute to the academic success of nontraditional students. A key to retention is a tailored tuition aid system that is adapted to the nontraditional student’s unique financial profile. One-size-fits-all financial aid simply fails the nontraditional student.

To improve what we know about these students, governments need to develop better tracking systems for data collection. Other recommendations in the report suggest putting nontraditional students into special cohorts for group support, shorter class terms that accommodate individuals balancing work and family, a hybrid learning experience that mixes online and onsite classes, better coordinated systems that simplify access to libraries, tutoring and technology support, mentors and life coaching to help overcome dispositional barriers, bridge programs to facilitate access for high school dropouts and flexible exit and entry points to accommodate family and job situations.

Of course, all of these special programs require federal and state funding at a time when those resources are greatly constrained. If we do nothing to improve the odds for nontraditional students we’ll continue to keep a large segment of our population and the majority of college students on the pathway to failure.

Adjustment is needed
As Pathways to Success indicates, higher education, with its traditional structure to serve the traditional student, will need to adopt practices and resources that better meet the needs of nontraditional students. Like its parent institution, the academic library is not well equipped to meet the needs of the nontraditional student. Many services, be it reference or instruction, are offered at inconvenient times for nontraditional students. Many of them are online learners, and we may lack the staff or resources to adequately meet the needs of distance students. How can we facilitate their access to print collections?

For students returning to learning after a considerable gap or coming from an inadequate high school education, our technology-heavy systems can overwhelm. With traditional students we take for granted their comfort with computers and the latest web and communication technologies. Those assumptions cannot be made with nontraditional students. Yet, as the report suggests, they are the ones who most need our support for academic success.

For those academic librarians who find they are working with an increasing number of nontraditional students, reading Pathways to Success may be a good starting point in developing services targeted to the special needs of these new majority students. If it seems to us that our students think they no longer need what academic librarians offer, perhaps we need to shift our gaze to that growing population of nontraditional students. The academic library should be a destination point on their pathway to success.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.



  1. I am a nontradional student. I just graduated with an advanced degree from a good university. My factory closed in 2005 and I went back to school through WIA for two years, and finished another year with a academic scholarship and finanical aid at a local community college. Enthused by my success and thinking further education would gain me a chance at a better job I transferred to a univesity using financial aid the first year. After that I borrowed money becasue I could not find anything but part-time work, and needed money to pay bills.I have now graduated and I am still doing a part-time job ($7.25 an hr.) that is not in my field of study to make ends meet. I am 60 years old and I have a good education, $12,000 in student debt, no experience except what I have read about in books and no one is interested in hiring me. In three or four months I will be required to start paying $130 a month on student loans.Financially I might have done better to go back to work at a factory. The factories aren’t even interested in my applications now that I have an advanced degree. I haven’t given up on finding a dream job but retirement at 62 is looking good, even if I have to take a $200 a month cut and sign up for food stamps. I have a BA, AAS, 8 cetifications, and 3.7 GPA.

  2. I’m a non-traditional student as well. I’m blogging about my experiences of returning to school at Come check it out. I just started a couple of days ago.