Non-traditional students are the new norm on many college campuses. Only as few as 16 percent of college students today fit the so-called "traditional" mold: 18-22 years old, financially dependent on their parents, in college full time and living on campus, according to the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.1 For career colleges, non-traditional students make dream candidates. Adult students go back with a goal in mind. Whether they are seeking career advancement or skills training, non-traditional students are driven by purpose.

The growing number of non-traditional learners seeking post-secondary enrollment presents academic institutions with great opportunities to increase their student body, especially for career colleges that understand the unique needs of adult learners. To do so, academic institutions must first identify the needs of this demographic.

But what exactly is a non-traditional student? Perhaps the most pertinent characteristic that groups these students together is age. Because most non-traditional students attend college later in life, this demographic usually consists of students aged 24-45 years of age.1 But, more than age, these adult students share common backgrounds and experiences that, in terms of post-secondary education, call for a very specific learning environment. Here's what you need to know to start attracting this growing pool of prospective students.

Does not immediately continue his/her education after graduating high school

For non-traditional students, continuing education after high school isn't the norm. Reasons vary, but the following are the most common:

- They are/will be first-generation college students: According to the Tennessee Association of Independent Colleges and Schools (TAICS), 69 percent of career college students are also first-generation college students.2 Without support from family members, oftentimes non-traditional students find themselves alone in the college journey. They don't know how to research, choose or enroll in college, and the process becomes too overwhelming and irrelevant.

- They didn't do well in high school, so they think college will be too hard: Transitioning from high school to college is tough for even the most astute high school students. For non-traditional students who struggled through high school, the demands of studying and time management become even more challenging. Seventy-three percent of dropouts surveyed by Public Agenda said their high schools failed to provide motivation, preparation and sound advice for going to college.3 Without flexibility and blended learning options that benefit this group of learners, students lack the confidence necessary to move forward with a college career.

- They can't afford college: After high school, non-traditional students lack the knowledge base to understand their options when it comes to paying for school. Whether this is due to being a first generation high school graduate or the burden of at-home financial responsibilities, college tuition is simply not considered a feasible option.  

Has a GED

A 2011 National Center for Education Statistics report estimates that only three out of every five four-year college students graduate within six years.3 Among the top reasons for college incompletion is lack of preparation for the demands of college coursework. For those who earn their GED, the certificate often marks the end of their education, in part because few GED programs are well-linked to college or training programs.4

Works full-time (35 hours or more per week) and attends college only part-time

Most non-traditional students are already immersed in the working world. Going to work is often the main reason these students opt out of post-secondary education, until they realize they lack the proper skills and education to advance in their chosen field. According to TAICS, 79 percent of students are already employed and continue working during their time as a student.2 Further, of students ages 25-35 at a four-year private institution, 71 percent are enrolled part-time. In a two-year institution, 78 percent are part-time.5 Flexibility in coursework is key for non-traditional students. Because they likely have a family to support, not working is not an option. Blended learning opportunities that include night classes, online courses and virtual office hours make college success possible for adult students.

Have children or dependents other than a spouse and/or is a single parent

Even if students are going to class, their home life can be a major deterrent in their educational success. For students who have children, spouses or other dependents at home, feelings of guilt or selfishness come between successful college completion. Sometimes, when families aren't supportive of someone going back to school, feelings of resentment cause tension in the household, causing the student to ultimately drop out. Even in the most supportive scenarios, balancing home responsibilities with work and school prove too difficult to sustain enrollment. If the institution can provide some type of daily encouragement and support, it can help combat what students face in their personal lives and give them the hope they need to finish their education.2

Resources: Photo1; (1) Success for Adult Students (2) Retaining Students at For-Profit Career Colleges (3) What Are the Causes of College Dropouts? (4) Enhancing GED Instruction to Prepare Students for College and Careers (5) Characteristics of Postsecondary Students