Nontraditional students are one of the fastest growing student groups in higher education. Nontraditional students can be defined as students who follow a non-continuous education path into college. They typically enter college after the age of 25, or return to college after a period of absence. These students have some defining characteristics: they are older in age and often hold full-time jobs; they are typically married with dependents to support or single parents; and often times they are part-time students.

The challenges faced by nontraditional students may be quite different than those of traditional students who enter college immediately following high school. Some of these issues create barriers to degree completion, including financial concerns, multiple role demands, childcare issues, and a lack of confidence in their preparation and skills needed to successfully meet graduation requirements. Stress and time management can play a big role in the lives of these students. The pull for their attention in multiple directions–between work, school, and family life obligations–can contribute to stress. These students often report major financial concerns with regard to paying for their education and also supporting their family. Nontraditional college students can struggle with confidence issues and may experience difficulty adjusting after being out of the classroom for some time. Both returning and first-time nontraditional students might have anxiety about being older than other students.

Another key way nontraditional students differ from traditional students relates to their health and wellness. A broad range of issues such as financial stress, mental health, and greater need for preventative health screenings, women’s health services, and counseling services for academic and personal support are often mentioned in the research literature as important for nontraditional students. These students also face a variety of health issues that need to be considered by the institution. Nontraditional students report lower rates of health insurance coverage, lower levels of annual checkups and prevention screening tests, and higher levels of prescription drug misuse. Nontraditional students also have a greater likelihood of physical health concerns resulting from lower reported levels of physical activity, higher rates of obesity, and lower-nutrient diets compared to their traditional-aged college peers. All of these factors may be influenced by time and financial constraints among this nontraditional population.

Five key recommendations can help institutions support their nontraditional students:

  1. When students are feeling stressed about finances they may become less successful in the classroom. Institutions can support students by providing them with the knowledge and skills to successfully manage their finances and plan for their future. Understand your student’s financial literacy – not just their knowledge, but also their attitudes towards debt and their financial behaviors – in order to determine what role the institution can play in securing a sound financial future for these students.
  2.  Strong time management skills can help these students maintain academic success. Offer academic support services that focus on goal-setting, prioritization, planning, decision-making, organization, teamwork, and other important skills.
  3. Given the risks associated with nonmedical use of prescription drugs and the higher rate of this behavior among non-traditional students, this is a topic that is prime for further research, targeted outreach, and increased support services.
  4. Encouraging students to incorporate healthy nutrition practices and physical activity into their daily lives and social interaction through the built environment may help increase these behaviors. This could include providing and educating students about affordable and accessible healthy food options on and around campus. Providing students with healthier options to commute around campus, such as walking and biking paths, is another way institutions can support student health. Education is key when implementing these changes and remember that students value information on how to make small changes given their busy lives.
  5. Student’s mental health is a very important component to addressing overall wellness. Anxiety and depression are two of the most pressing health concerns among nontraditional students. Helping these students apply adaptive coping mechanisms, such as planning, can lead to reduced stress and greater satisfaction with school and life.  

Nontraditional students are diverse in demographics and socioeconomics, but research has identified important focus areas that more generally apply to these students. Given that many higher education systems are not structured to serve the particular needs of this growing population, institutions should assess the needs of their nontraditional students in order to serve them better.

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