non-traditional college student challenges

Rise Above It: Overcoming Common Non-Traditional College Student Challenges

non-traditional college student challenges

The first day at school is an anxious time for anyone. But for non-traditional students, the time can be even more nerve-wracking. Even the thought of going back to school can be enough to make someone dismiss the idea. However, there are plenty of reasons for adults to return to college as older learners. Non-traditional college student challenges can seem overwhelming, but you can rise above it.  

The Challenges Non-Traditional College Students Often Face

Let’s face it — non-traditional college students face more challenges than “traditional” ones. After all, most high school graduates can live a reasonably carefree life. And the thought of leaving home, living on-campus, making new friends, and living a student’s life was exciting. So, typical students enter college life at the start of a journey of discovery.

Non-traditional college students have challenges to overcome that they never had after high school. Many adult learners have full-time jobs, are looking after kids, worrying about financial commitments, and many other things to think about. While these challenges seem like roadblocks, there are ways to turn seeming obstructions into stepping stones. Yes—stepping stones to a college degree and a new career.

In this article, you’ll find ways to rise above the “roadblocks” of going to college as an older student.

What is a Non-Traditional College Student?

Non-traditional college students are students who enroll in college if they are age 25 and older. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) says that some characteristics of non-traditional students are the following:

  • They don’t enter college straight after high school
  • They may be parents with family responsibilities
  • Non-traditional students usually work part- or full-time
  • They are financially independent of parents
  • Some have a GED, not a high school diploma
  • Adults who are returning to college to complete an unfinished degree

The Challenges of Non-Traditional College Students

Let’s look at the five challenges that adult students face when going to college. You’ll also find helpful tips on overcoming these challenges to make college a successful pathway to a new career.

1. Feeling too old to go to college

Age can be one of the biggest challenges when deciding to go to college. If you’re an adult learner, you might feel that you’ll be the oldest in your class. You could also think that younger students will make fun of you. However, you may be surprised to learn that non-traditional students are not the exception in college.

For example, the NCES reports that in 2020, there were nearly 20 million students in colleges and universities. From them, 7.5 million, or 37.5 percent, were classed as non-traditional students. So, it’s good to remember that non-traditional students are surprisingly common in college.

2. Going back to college seems too expensive for non-traditional students

Financing your education can be a significant challenge if you’re in the “non-traditional” category. With bills to pay and mouths to feed, it could seem like the extra expense of college is not worth it. But there are ways to get financial aid to get you through college.

To overcome this challenge, you can apply for grants, student loans, or scholarships. To start, fill out the FAFSA form to see if you’re eligible for federal grants such as the Pell Grant. You can also reach out to your local college’s financial aid office to see what additional funding they have.

Of course, for some non-traditional students, college financing may not be an issue. Maybe you’ve paid off the mortgage, the kids have already left home, or you’re in a position to switch careers.

3. You’re already working full-time

If you’ve got a job and caring for a family, finding time could seem like a barrier to pursuing your college degree. Some stay-at-home parents may have time, but they worry about childcare and balancing parental responsibilities.

Studying for an associate’s or bachelor’s degree is a significant time commitment. But many degree programs have blended learning. This could include weekend and evening classes or online learning. Additionally, it may be possible to enroll as a part-time student and obtain your degree over a more extended period.

What about childcare? Many colleges now offer childcare services to help non-traditional students get their degree. If you’re eligible for a federal grant, you can also use some of the money to pay for childcare when you’re learning.

4. It’s years since you studied in school

It’s true, much has changed since you last attended school. For older learners in their 50s, the prospect of learning new technology could seem too overwhelming. However, there is much you can do to prepare for learning in a new environment.

Many colleges offer courses to help non-traditional learners get the basics of computer technology. Since the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, many older people have learned how to use video conferencing to keep in touch with family and friends. So, for the majority, technology is more accessible, and online learning is more straightforward.

Remember that, as an adult student, you can bring much to the classroom that younger students don’t have — your life experience. You can make valuable contributions to online or classroom discussions to enrich everyone’s learning experience.

5. Not having the confidence to succeed

Unfortunately, many non-traditional students put off going to college because they think they’ll not succeed. Of course, there can be many reasons why someone lacks self-confidence. But you have just as much — or even a better — chance of success as younger students.

Non-traditional learners have fewer distractions than “typical” students have.  For example, because older learners are typically caring for many responsibilities, they know how to manage time. Also, adult students attend college with a specific goal in mind. This makes them more focused on their studies and making sure that they get excellent grades.

As a non-traditional student, you already have most of the skills you need to succeed in college. You can leverage these life skills to your advantage to be an asset in the classroom. In fact, no studies show that non-traditional college students have a lower GPA or pass rate than their younger counterparts.

Overcoming Challenges That Non-Traditional College Students Face

Non-traditional students in college face unique challenges. In many cases, it’s possible to rise to the challenge and successfully complete a two or four-year degree course. Not only is further education enriching, but you will also turn roadblocks into steppingstones to progress into a rewarding career.

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