Nontraditional students are now the majority in post-secondary education. According to a Department of Education study published this September,1 74 percent of students in the 2011-2012 school year possessed at least one nontraditional characteristic. As defined by the DOE's study, nontraditional characteristics include not having a traditional high school diploma, attending school part-time, working full-time, delaying post-secondary enrollment, being independent for financial aid purposes, having one or more dependents, or being a single caregiver.

Students in these situations face challenges distinct from traditional four-year undergraduates. Truitt Taylor, director of admissions at Atlanta's Lincoln Tech, recently shared some perspective on the challenges facing nontraditional students and the solutions educational professionals can provide.

Helping Students Who Don't Have Diplomas

Students who left high school before they earned their diploma must earn the credential before they can enroll in a career college. To serve this population, high school diploma programs exist to cater to the demands of the nontraditional student. For example, Penn Foster's online High School Completion program is available at Lincoln Tech campuses around the country. This enables students to progress at their own pace while eliminating the pressure of standardized tests that can discourage students in traditional settings. "For the students I've worked with, just the thought of finishing their high school diploma is the greatest thing in the world," Taylor says enthusiastically. "Just seeing the look on their face once they get done with the high school portion of it... it really is a momentum booster for them to actually finish college."

Supporting Students Transitioning into a Trade

The White House has set a goal of producing an additional 5 million community college graduates between now and 2020 to meet the growing need for workers with skills in such areas as health information technology, nursing, advanced manufacturing and green jobs.2 Taylor sees this same need from his perspective as an admissions director: "The workers in the skilled trade fields are starting to retire, and there's a huge need for skilled trade and certificate-type professions such as medical programs and everything from electrical and HVAC to plumbing, welding and automotive."

Meeting the needs of students preparing for a trade career requires building partnerships between high schools, colleges and businesses in order to provide hands-on opportunities and networking contacts. Taylor sees more high schools supporting this effort by providing opportunities such as automotive, electrical and medical programs. In the Atlanta area, where air conditioning is a major industry, Lincoln's HVAC and electrical programs are in high demand. The school's medical program is also popular, and with more automobile manufacturers moving into the area, Taylor would like to see more partnerships between college programs and car companies.

Assisting Students Struggling to Balance School and Work

More than 70 percent of college students are now working while attending school, according to a new Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce study.3 Students work an average of 30 hours a week, and more than a quarter work full-time, including one-fifth of all full-time students.

To address this, the study recommends steps such as strengthening ties between schools and the workplace, gearing educational programs toward market labor demands, offering more career counseling, and focusing on competency-based coursework. Taylor echoes this stress on competency-based training, which he sees as "the future of education." He says, "If schools can implement the competency-based learning more...students can get through the program as fast or as long as it takes." Other steps that can assist working students are designing financial aid packages to let them cut back to part-time work and offering daycare programs for student parents.

Reaching Distance Learners

In fall 2012, more than 2.8 million U.S. students (or 13.3 percent of the student population) were enrolled in at least some online distance education courses, and more than 2.6 million (or 12.5 percent of the student population) were studying exclusively online, according to a Department of Education report released in June 2014.4

For students in fields that require hands-on experience, online learning poses the challenge of how to acquire such practical training. Taylor sees blended learning as the solution. "In a hybrid program, there's classroom experience and there's also online experience, so students can finish portions of the program from home," he says. "And then there are days where they have to come in and do the hands-on stuff with an instructor. I think that's where you'll see your best-prepared skilled trade and health care workers."

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Resources: Photo credit. (1) Demographic and Enrollment Characteristics of Nontraditional Undergraduates (2) Building American Skills Through Community Colleges (3) Learning While Earning: The New Normal (4) Enrollment in Distance Education Courses, by State