Monday, September 14, 2009

Day 30 - The Top 5 Challenges for Non-Traditional College Students

Non-traditional college students enjoy so many unique advantages, like having real world experience to draw upon for class assignments. Still, they also face a set of unique challenges which can be vastly different from those of traditional students who have gone from high school to college or from an undergraduate degree straight into grad school.

What makes the non-traditional student so, well, "non-traditional"? There are variations among the definitions, but any of the following qualifies a student as non-traditional. They are generally:
  • Over 25
  • At least eight years away from the academic environment
  • Not living with or supported by their parents
  • Currently raising a family or have raised one
  • Working parents (single or married)
  • Have served in or are serving in the military (not including ROTC)
Clearly, non-trads are a diverse blend of individuals, each more unique than the next. Still, they share one universal trait. They are committed to being in school, to getting an education no matter what. They are more dedicated to learning, to assignments and to the work of learning. They are not here because parents or an adviser told them to be; they genuinely want to better themselves.

Some non-trads are back in school after years, even decades, away from a classroom. Invariably, things have changed since the last time they were here.

The Top 5 Challenges Facing Today's Non-Traditional Students

1) Fitting in. For many older students, especially those 20 or 30 (or more) years older than the traditional students, there is usually trepidation about walking into the first class. Many are self-conscious about being older. Others are afraid to ask questions in class, just like the average 18-year-old. While wisdom often comes with age... age doesn't necessarily mean they can remember everything. Some have physical limitations (arthritis, failing vision or the perils of such unspeakable things as (shhhhhh) menopause) to contend with. They may not dress like the younger students. It may be awkward when a professor asks the class to choose "teams." (Anyone recall what it was like being the only kid not picked for dodgeball?) It's like that.
Some students experience anxiety or shyness. Some are afraid to reach out for help for fear they will appear less than "adult."

2) Finding time. It is a juggling act; there's no doubt about that. Most non-traditionals work. Some work full-time and/or part-time jobs just to cover the costs of school. It's not that traditional students don't have jobs, too, but they really don't compare. Many hard-working non-traditional students have families depending upon them. Where do they find the time to read, study, research, write papers and prepare presentations? They can do it all, with a little finesse and a lot of attention to time management and organizational skills.

3) Staying healthy. Too often, what "gives" when there are not enough hours in the day is attention to self... getting proper rest, exercise, relaxation, healthy meals, even a little "me" time. Consider all the working mothers and fathers who are NOT taking college classes and still find it difficult to make time for health and well being. This is magnified when mom or dad is also trying to take classes in so-called "spare time." In the end, nothing is as important as maintaining one's health. In order to do it all, make time to adequately care for body, heart and mind.

4) Maintaining contact. Traditional students have social lives. They enjoy fraternities and sororities, dorm mates, roommates, parties, clubs, teams, hundreds of events and activities specifically designed to provide that well-rounded college experience. This is truly S.O. P., but not for non-traditional students.

Rarely, if ever, do non-traditional students find programs or activities designed to meet their needs. There are no support groups, study programs, or clubs for non-traditional students. I believe the social aspects of college life are integral to any educational experience, especially for undergraduates and regardless of age.

My blogs have addressed these challenges and offered some support for non-traditional students. I'd love to hear your ideas on how we can support one another in the laudable effort to improve our minds, careers, and ourselves. Let this be a springboard to developing events, groups and services to meet the needs of more non-traditional college students.

5) Sticking with it. Staying power wanes quickly if there is no adequate support system. And, no one ever said going back to college would be a cake walk. I have often empathized with friends who started but never finished an advanced degree. Certainly, I understood the reasons why it was so hard tom stick with it. It's a slippery slope, and far too easy to put college or grad school on hold when work and family pull you in other directions. All too often, taking a semester break turns into quitting. Many motivated individuals take a grad-school class or two and then very easily decide to put their educations back "on-hold."

I found my way back to school after 30 years, and truly, it has been the best time, the most productive education, and the right thing for me. I hope to encourage others to consider going back to school. It can change your career, your life, and the world. When we stop learning, we stop living. So, I salute anyone committed to education.

Those are but a few of the unique challenges we face as non-traditional college students. Luckily, the rewards of heading back to school are plentiful and easily outweigh the challenges.

Next, we cover the benefits of pursuing a degree later in life.



  1. ET,

    Thanks for taking the time to share your experiences. I'm enjoying going along on your ride through your final term as a grad student. Your offerings are very insightful and speak to the reader on many levels. Nice work.

    Keep it up. You just might have something here, or something to build on for the future.


  2. Thanks. It's so nice to know that there really is someone out there reading these. Let me know if there is any topic you'd like me to cover. It means so much that you took the time to comment.