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For the last ten to fifteen years, colleges and universities typically concentrated on one type of student, those being “traditional” students. However, there has been a growing population of students who no longer fit the traditional mold. Today, schools around the country are working harder than ever to create classes and programs for these students, to understand them better, gather cultural data about them, and give them the best educational experience possible.

What is a non-traditional student?

A non-traditional student is someone that doesn’t fit the typical criteria for a college student. Some of these students are single parents, have one or more dependents, have a full-time job while attending college, do not own a high school diploma, or they work part-time while attending college. In the past, a non-traditional college student meant someone worked full time or had a family to care for, yet they still attended college and completed their classwork.

Depending on the type of school or institution, other groups can also be added, such as transfer students, international students, first-generation students, senior citizens, veterans, active members of the military, or online or long-distance education students.

Why is this important?

The number of non-traditional students attending college is growing rapidly, and will only get bigger as time goes on. The lack of a definition for these students matters for a variety of reasons. If we can’t identify them correctly, we can’t support them, measure whether or not they are doing well, or even create resources to assist them. According to the NCES definition, over 50% of college students in the United States are defined as non-traditional students to a certain degree. Even though these numbers differ significantly by location, it is evident that at least five out of every eight college students fit the term non-traditional.

Changing the nomenclature is only the beginning. There’s still a lot of information needed on who to include in this demographic. In addition to that, we as educational leaders must realize that every student is different and that we should not put them all in one basket or teach them the same exact methods. With care, understanding, and research, we can create programs that will help them advance in their educations and beyond.