Recently, we've been hearing a lot of buzz over how the "non-traditional student' is quickly becoming the new norm. Mission-based organizations and career-focused education providers are taking the helm to compile and disseminate information and profiles for this burgeoning archetype. We analyzed the key insights from two 2016 surveys on the modern-day learner: Barnes & Noble College Insights platform's report "Achieving Success for Non-traditional Students: Exploring the Changing Face of Today's Student Population," and Penn Foster's survey of 100,000+ high school, college, and career school students. Below we explore the key trends illustrated from these surveys, and why it makes a lot of sense to start seriously considering their needs when building education solutions for the upcoming generation:

Their Primary Motivation is Career Success: Over half of the recipients in the Barnes & Noble survey described themselves as academically successful, motivated, or optimistic. The number one reason non-traditional student enroll in college is for career preparation, specifically to build applicable skills to land a job post-graduation. Likewise, over 55% of Penn Foster students cited getting a job or obtaining a better job as their primary motivations for enrolling.

They Balance Many External Responsibilities: Non-traditional students face many external responsibilities in addition to pursuing their education. About 50% of Penn Foster students reported having children, along with 25% of respondents from the Barnes & Noble survey. Additionally, the majority of Penn Foster students have jobs - many of whom are employed full-time.

The Cost of Education is a Major Concern: Another major challenge facing non-traditional learners is the cost of education. The majority of respondents to the Barnes & Noble survey listed finances as their top challenge. Likewise, half of Penn Foster make less than 30k a year and 61% are completely responsible for their tuition. These financial burdens can, in turn, lead to broader barriers for students as it relates to the time they can devote to their studies, their ability to purchasing textbooks, the number of credits students can take at a time, and the chances of graduating on-time.

They Prefer Flexible Learning Options: Unsurprising given the myriad external commitments non-traditional students face, they prefer flexible learning options as part of their studies and are very comfortable using technology to enable this. Over 70% of respondents in the Barnes & Noble survey said they are moderately or very comfortable with digital options. Moreover, many students saw online learning as a way to alleviate their external challenges: 54% of Penn Foster students preferred reported online education works better with their family commitments, 31% said it helped balance their work/professional commitments, and overall 58% said it was most suitable for their schedule. The self-paced element of online learning is also an essential element for nontraditional learners, with 73% of Penn Foster students choosing to student online for the ability to complete their work at their own pace.

So What Do We Take Away from All of This?

As the above learnings illustrate, while non-traditional students do have some similarities to traditional students, it's crucial for educators to understand the differences between these students and traditional learners. This requires looking through a larger lens, piecing together the patchwork of challenges, needs, motivations, and personal struggles our modern cohort experiences today. From here, we can begin examining how our current education system can better meet today's student population, they will continue to propel us forward to build more supportive, flexible, and affordable education solutions.

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