Nontraditional Students: Earning a College Degree at Any Age

Maybe you have noticed, perusing pages of information on higher education, that much of it seems geared toward recent high school graduates in their late teens or early twenties. While traditional students have long been the norm, other types of learners—particularly those pursuing degrees while working full time or after a significant break in their education—are increasingly commonplace on college campuses.

Why Now?

Nontraditional students bring considerable benefits to the college classroom. Whatever their reasons for having postponed a college education, be it raising children or saving money, the return to academia invariably comes with increased experience and wisdom. Mature students are likely to view their education as an investment—which universities love, since it results in much higher retention rates. Here are more reasons that prompt many adult learners to return to school:

  • Career changes (restructuring, increased responsibility, desire to get ahead)
  • Life transitions—marriage, death of a loved one, and divorce are all changes that inspire academic growth
  • Increase in free time due to retirement, furlough, or “empty nest”
  • Change in financial situation resulting in increased aid eligibility
  • Desire for personal satisfaction/goal completion

U.S. Campuses Evolve

Nontraditional college students continue to grow in numbers as the world economy becomes more diverse and more demanding. Having outlived the college-age mentality, however, nontraditional students often struggle to gain confidence among their younger classmates.

Many adult learners are parents (and sometimes grandparents), full-time workers, active community members, and religious leaders who need special help with time management if they hope to successfully fulfill a bevy of demanding roles.

That’s why today’s colleges and universities work to accommodate the vastly different learning needs of mature students with flexible course schedules, distance learning options, child care services, blended degrees, and credit-for-experience programs.

Finding Funding

Financial aid can be tricky at any age, but perhaps especially so for adult learners with longstanding financial responsibilities. But there is hope. For starters, scholarships exist specifically for adult learners. And an added benefit to extensive work history is that current and prospective employers—as well as certain programs at your school of choice—are more likely to offer help with tuition to students who can demonstrate experience and know-how.

Maintaining regular contact with your prospective school’s financial aid office will help you anticipate challenges as your work-education balance begins to shift.


This article was written by Hannah Purnell

Hannah Purnell is a staff writer for Hannah writes extensively on the topic of undergraduate studies and the college search process.

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