In 2012, the Library Journal called non-traditional students the new majority. That trend has not changed - non-traditional is the new traditional. In response, the academic landscape and higher education institutions have shifted to meet the needs of non-traditional students with diverse backgrounds. As these students graduate and eagerly enter the workforce, employers may be hesitant to embrace this new majority.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, almost three fourths of undergraduates fall outside of the stereotypical college student - 18 to 22-year-old full-time college students living on campus who are financially dependent on their parents. The rising non-traditional student meets any of the following criteria as defined by NCES:

  • Delayed enrollment into postsecondary education
  • Attends college part-time
  • Works full-time
  • Financially independent for financial aid purposes
  • Has dependents in addition to a spouse
  • Single parent
  • Doesn't have a high school diploma
  • Defined as adult learners (25 years old or older)

This cohort may be returning to school to earn their first degree or an advanced degree. They could be between jobs or balancing both work and school to advance or even change their career. But the experiences of these individuals set them up for professional success, despite being labeled as "non-traditional students."

Employers may ask, do candidates with non-traditional backgrounds make good employees? The short answer is yes. Here's what you need to know:


  • Multitasking Abilities: Candidates with a non-traditional background have learned to juggle multiple priorities. A typical non-traditional student may have gone to school part-time while working full-time and supporting dependents . Life obligations compete with educational obligations. These individuals developed the multitasking skills necessary for balancing multiple priorities between life and school demands, which will translate well into the workplace.
  • Confidence & Motivation: A non-traditional student may return to school as an adult learner with insecurity about failure and worries about work, school and life balance. It's a scary and intimidating endeavor, but determined students discover they do indeed have the capability to achieve success outside their comfort zone. Each triumph builds more confidence and the motivation to continue to learn and grow. These individuals know how to persevere in the face of adversity.
  • Engagement: At the University of Maryland University College (UMUC), adult students actively engage in the classroom, according to "Success for Adult Students" by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. These students typically prefer to talk about their experiences, rather than listen to a lecture and memorize information. Adult students in particular tend to apply information they've learned, ask more questions and challenge issues more in a classroom, says Susan C. Aldridge, president of UMUC. These individuals graduate and are eager to apply that same level of active engagement to succeed in a career.
  • Job Experience: Non-traditional adult students tend to have workplace experience prior to school and may have even worked during school. They may go back to school to earn a degree or certification for career advancement and gain the necessary occupational skills training to enhance or change their professional path. Driven by purpose, the adult learner is focused toward a career goal as an educated career enhancer or career changer who already has real-world experience in a work environment.
  • Commitment: Returning as an adult learner can be an overwhelming process. But non-traditional students end up proving to themselves that they are capable of more than they initially thought. Commitment keeps this type of student driven and focused toward their goal, despite competing priorities and conflicting obligations. Their educational journey symbolizes the power of commitment. A committed candidate also values ongoing intellectual curiosity - the desire to learn and grow.

As a hiring manager, ask yourself these 10 questions when evaluating the available talent pool and determining the best candidates for the position, despite a non-traditional background.

  1. Does the candidate show enthusiasm, initiative, engagement and a positive attitude?
  2. Is there long-term or leadership potential?
  3. Can the candidate articulate his or her competencies, skills, goals and interest in the position?
  4. Does the candidate provide relevant work experience?
  5. What stories can the candidate share from an apprenticeship, internship or hands-on experience?
  6. Does the candidate meet the academic requirements or appropriate certifications?
  7. How would this person fit into the company culture, socially and interpersonally?
  8. What is the candidate's level of self-awareness?
  9. Is the candidate likeable and compatible?
  10. Does the candidate demonstrate dependability?

Non-traditional simply means an alternative course of action was taken to arrive at the same destination. Look beyond the stigmas of potential gaps in education, or employment and look at the bigger picture. This potential candidate may just be your next star employee.

Resources: Photo1(1) Nontraditional Students Are the New Majority (2) 3 Common Questions From Nontraditional Students Answered (3) Success for Adult Students (4) What is a Nontraditional Learner, Anyway?


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