The Changing Face of College

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Nontraditional is the new traditional when it comes to the demographics of today’s college student body.

For the past several years colleges and universities have experienced a paradigm shift in the average age of students. Research reported by Stamats, a higher education marketing agency, shows as few as 16 percent of college students today fit the traditional mold: 18-22 year-olds who enroll in college directly from high school, are financially dependent on parents, are in college full-time, do not have major life and work responsibilities (full-time job or dependents) and who live on campus.

The American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) reports that 47 percent of all students currently enrolled in colleges and universities 25 years of age or older.

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) has identified seven characteristics common to nontraditional students. They:

  • Do not immediately continue education after graduation from high school;
  • Attend college only part-time;
  • Work full time (35 hours or more per week);
  • Are financially independent;
  • Have children or dependents other than a spouse;
  • Are a single parent; and
  • Have a GED, not a high school diploma.


Seventy-five percent of all undergraduate students now have at least one of these characteristics and are considered nontraditional. Reasons for this include people who are learning new skills after being laid off from a job, coming off of active duty in the military, wanting to change careers or obtain an advanced degree.

With many obligations outside of being a student, colleges and universities are creatively accommodating the needs of nontraditional students. If they do not, according to Jamie Merisotis, president of the Lumina Foundation for Education, (because) it takes longer for a person to work to get the credential, it is less likely the person will actually achieve it.

Adult students learn differently and don’t just memorize. By offering online, evening and weekend classes, colleges and universities are assisting nontraditional students with insecurities such as failure, cost and whether they can balance all the activities in their lives along with academic studies.

An interesting finding by The National Student Satisfaction and Priorities Report, is that 67 percent of adult learners and 74 percent of online learners rate their level of satisfaction with their college experience as “satisfied” or “very satisfied.” Only 53 percent of traditional students could make this claim.

Another key finding from The Priorities Report is that the majority of online learners would re-enroll in their current program if given the chance to make a change. At 75 percent, this group showed the most enthusiasm for its current situation. Full-time, four-year public and private school students (most likely traditional students) indicated a likelihood of re-enrollment at 59 and 56 percent respectively.

The Priorities Report surveyed 683,000 students from 970 colleges and universities in the United States and found the reason nontraditional students are so much happier in school than traditional students is because they can register for classes without conflict, feel they receive value for their tuition costs, have instructional quality, an unbiased faculty and receive helpful feedback from educators and advisors.

Online education is the answer for students whose life circumstances make full-time, brick-and-mortar college attendance impossible. Opening this valuable door makes college more convenient, accessible and accommodating. To accommodate nontraditional students, colleges and universities are offering services such as financial aid, advising or tutoring after-hours (instead of the typical 9 to 5) and offering childcare for student-parents as well as additional parking for commuters.

College enrollment in the United States began taking a downward trend in 2010 and continues to fall every year. Traditional students are saying they are not satisfied with getting what they wanted out of their college experiences, but online classes are achieving exactly that goal.

USA Today reported that older students are the new normal at college because of the recession and new technology. New degrees and certifications can translate to higher paychecks and different lifestyles for their families.

According to the NCES, of the 17 million Americans enrolled in undergraduate higher education:

  • 1 in 5 is at least 30 years old;
  • About half are financially independent from their parents;
  • 1 in 4 is caring for a child;
  • 47 percent go to school part-time at some point;
  • A quarter take a year off before starting school;
  • 2 out of 5 attend a two-year community college; and
  • 44 percent have parents who never completed a bachelor’s degree.


With all these changes around colleges and universities, there’s one more thing that needs to change … implement a new phrase for nontraditional students because today, they are the new normal.

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