General Education

What to Expect as A Non-Traditional Student

What to Expect as A Non-Traditional Student
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KeriLynn Engel September 22, 2014

The population of non-traditional college students has been steadily increasing in the U.S. Read on to find out what you can expect if you aren’t a traditional student.

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Who springs to mind when you think of the typical undergraduate student?

The common perception is that undergraduate students begin immediately after graduating from high school. The National Center for Education Services has identified students older than 24 as "non-traditional." Yet now almost half of undergraduates in the U.S. are more than 25 years old, and about 20 percent work full-time while attending class, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Whether you have decided to take some time away from school after you graduate from high school, attend college part-time while you work, return to further your education, or even switch careers later in life, going to college as a "non-traditional" student has its own unique set of challenges.

Here’s what to expect and some tips for managing the experience, so you can pursue your degree, no matter where you are in life or how you’ve decided to go about it.

What to Expect as a Non-Traditional Student

Many stereotypes of the college experience, such as an active dorm life and frat parties, are not part of the lives of non-traditional students. So what can you expect during your college experience?

Here are some unique challenges you might face as a non-traditional student:

# Feeling left out and isolated at times

Going to class with traditional college students might mean you’ll feel a little left out as they talk about their roommates' antics or last night’s dorm party you didn't attend.

# Professors’ expectations

Professors who are more accustomed to traditional college students might expect that you have nothing but studies to worry about and have all the time in the world to complete assignments. In reality, you might be juggling school with work and family commitments.

# Feeling like a kid again

Nostalgia for your youth can be a good thing — until you’re reliving it. It’s hard to be treated like a child again (having to raise your hand to speak, getting unsolicited life advice from teachers, etc.) when you’ve been on your own for a while.

# Stress!

Trying to balance work, family, and college can be exhausting. The anxiety can take a physical, mental, and emotional toll if you’re not careful. If the pressure is too much, you may want to think about taking a Mental Health Day.

Tips for Non-Traditional Students

Being a non-traditional student has its hurdles, but here are some steps you can take to make your experience easier. Try some of these suggestions:

# 1. Reach out to your classmates.

If you feel continually left out by your classmates, try to relate to them. Listen in and join in the conversation. Invite a few fellow students to study together, or ask a couple to go on a double date with you and your significant other.

# 2. Try online courses.

Many colleges offer online courses because they are more flexible for the busy student’s schedule. You can work from home and at the most convenient time for you.

# 3. Talk to your professors.

If you’re having difficulties in a class due to your work/life balance, talk to your professor before it becomes an issue. She may be more flexible than you think.

# 4. Talk to counselors.

Many schools offer counseling services. If your stress is affecting your health and well-being, a counselor will be able to suggest practical methods for dealing with the pressure and anxiety.

# 5. Get your family on board.

Tell your family why you’re going to college, and tell them you need their help to stay motivated. You may be surprised how much their support will make a difference!


Johnson, J. (2013). Today’s typical college students often juggle work, children and bills with coursework. Washington Post. Retrieved from Washington Post

Nontraditional Undergraduates / Definitions and Data. (1996). National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from National Center for Education Statistcs

Schaefer, P. (2014). Expert Advice for Non-Traditional Students. Retrieved from Nerd Wallet


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