Nontraditional college students are the new normal

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The landscape of higher education is changing. Online learning options, the high cost of tuition, fading tenure programs for professors – today's college experience looks very different than the one students encountered 15 or 20 years ago. But, maybe some of these changes were designed to address what might be the biggest change of all: the change of the students themselves. Let's take a closer look at today's college students in an attempt to get a better sense of how their circumstances and objectives have shifted in recent years.

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Nontraditional students are the new normal.

According to EducationDive, with data from the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics, the majority of undergrads are now nontraditional. ECampus news noted that 74 percent of all undergraduates in 2011-12 had at least one nontraditional characteristic and about 33 percent had two or three. This has caused a shift in focus for today's undergrads, and that's changing the system itself.

How is "nontraditional" defined?

For the purposes of this study, nontraditional students are defined in one of three ways, as opposed to focusing exclusively on age or other background characteristics as was done in the past. Each of these types of students bring their own set of objectives and challenges to their undergraduate experiences, and colleges would be wise to consider them when working to optimize the design of their programs.

1. Enrollment patterns.

The traditional path to postsecondary education meant enrolling in college full-time immediately following high school. Any student who has delayed enrollment, even by a year, or who attends college part-time, is considered nontraditional.

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Older students often have more to balance when taking on the responsibilities of college enrollment than their younger counterparts, and the same is true for traditional-age students who work part time or more during their schooling. It's important for schools to consider the availability of time and focus for these students when designing their courses and setting expectations.

2. Financial and family status.

Anyone who has dependents other than a spouse, works full-time while enrolled, is a single parent, or is independent financially from their parents would fall into this category of nontraditional student.

The financial constraints and life demands shouldered by these students should inform institutions of higher education about the tremendous commitment these students devote toward furthering their educations. It should also show them why the focus on college ROI has grown more pronounced in recent years.

3. High school graduation status.

Students who received an alternative certificate of completion (such as a GED), rather than a standard high school diploma, are also considered nontraditional.

The need for an advanced degree in order to secure decent work is luring many students back to the classroom these days. But, these students might need different programs or supports in order to successfully progress through their undergraduate work. Schools should focus on addressing the needs of these students when establishing expectations and setting up programs.

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Another piece of this puzzle is that nontraditional students are more likely to attend for-profit schools or take classes online.

Up to a third of nontraditional students attend for-profit colleges, according to data reviewed for this study. Unlike non-profit colleges and universities, which rely on state funding, these schools are accountable to shareholders and must focus on revenue as well as the quality of the education they provide. The Education Department has vowed to weed out "bad actors" among for-profit schools, shutting down federal student loan funding to fraudulent schools and/or those whose loan default rates exceed 30 percent for three years in a row – so far, without much success.

About one in 10 moderately nontraditional students choose online courses as their path to a degree. These programs are no longer the anomalies they were in the past – they are becoming the new normal for nontraditional students looking to better their careers.

A lot has changed in higher education in recent years, and perhaps a lot of that is due to the changing needs of the students who enroll in college. As the landscape changes, the schools must change as well in order to continue to meet the needs of their students.

Check out the full report from the U.S. Department of Education for more information.

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