Non-traditional college students: A new tradition

Higher education can seem like a daunting task to those who do not follow a traditional educational path. However, college is more important, flexible, and diverse than ever before. Students and potential students who fall in to the category of “nontraditional” should consider that college is for you, it is accessible, and taking a non-traditional path to college is becoming the norm, not the exception. This article will cover some common questions and concerns facing non-traditional – and any – potential and current college students.

Why go to college?

College enrollment is an important step in many young adults’ career paths. Nearly 70% of high school graduates between 16 and 24 years of age were enrolled in colleges or universities in the 2018-2019 school year.1 This is an encouraging trend, as previous studies have shown that on average, the more education you have, the more you stand to earn over a lifetime career.2 While some degree programs tend to earn more than others, the benefit of higher education to a person’s lifetime achievement consistently shows increased earnings of twenty to fifty thousand dollars more a year with a college education.3 Obtaining a college degree can increase your chances of not only getting hired, but being promoted within companies.

Along with the social and professional network growth opportunities, college is seen as a logical next step for many high school graduates. However, college can also be a logical next step for people of other backgrounds.

What is a non-traditional student?

The definition of a non-traditional student is not a clear cut, one box to check kind of category. The most commonly considered nontraditional students are those who didn’t graduate high school and immediately – or very soon thereafter – enter a four-year university. In most contexts, this means students who are over 24 years of age are considered non-traditional. The non-traditional status also takes into account race and gender, taking a wider, societal lens of what it means to be a minority in this college context. It can even include factors like where you live (i.e., not in a dorm); whether you work at the same time, especially if you work full-time; and whether you completed high school in a non-traditional way (e.g., received a General Education Diploma).4

The term “non-traditional” may soon be a misnomer for these students, as their numbers are expected to soon surpass the “traditional” college attendee. Almost half of all students enrolled in higher education are labeled as non-traditional, a quarter of which are over the age of 30.5

How to pay for college?

Cost of education is not confined to tuition. The time investment, room and board, and supplies are just a few of the associated costs to higher education, which can be a road block to those pursuing secondary degrees.6 The student loan debt in the United States is at an all-time high and can intimidate some who are considering going back to college.7 This is where financial aid comes in.

There are many ways to pay for college, but they all require organization and persistence. Searching and applying for scholarships and grants early is a necessity. Many colleges and universities offer fee waivers for their applications and the SAT and ACT. They often also offer scholarships, grants, and work-study positions to prospective undergraduates on a need-based system, meaning it is for students who demonstrate financial need through the FAFSA form (for U.S. students) ( There are also grants and scholarships specifically earmarked for non-traditional college students that are federally funded, state- or school-specific, or organization-based.8,9 Websites like help students quickly find funds to apply for, connecting them to scholarships, grants, internships, and part-time jobs that they can use to fund their education.

What about community college?

Beginning higher education at a community college is a financially sound and very common step. A community college, sometimes referred to as a junior college, are colleges that provide two years of post-high school education. They are most often used to take care of general education requirements but can also include specialized programs for certificates. These schools often provide an associate degree; however, they don’t usually provide a bachelor’s degree program like universities or four-year institutions offer. Community colleges typically serve small local populations and are more affordable than most four-year institutions.

One third of community college students transfer to a four-year institution. Of those who graduated with an associate degree prior to transferring, 80% graduated with a bachelor’s degree in four years.10 This is nearly identical to traditional student graduation rates (81%).11 Transferring is also nowhere near an unusual path, as 45% of students who finished a four-year degree had previously been in a two-year community college.10

Universities like the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) have dedicated school-wide programs to help attract, support, and retain transfer students through graduation. The emphasis on transfer student support led UCLA to be the #1 school in the country for transfer students.12 UCLA provides welcome events, mentoring, and study halls specifically for transfer students to help them succeed. It isn’t just the university organizing these events, either. Transfer students at UCLA have created 20+ student groups to create a community that will support each other.12 Similarly, Tau Sigma is a national honor’s society for transfer students created to provide that sense of community and support specifically tailored to their unique challenges and needs (

How do you find the time?

College is still possible even with a busy schedule. College can be part-time: there are evening, weekend, and online classes. Evening and weekend classes typically take place between 5 a.m. and 10 p.m. and are designed specifically to facilitate college attendance while working and taking care of a family.13 Online education is a growing trend with almost one third of students taking at least one online course.11 However, online education is typically more expensive than on campus education, which means weighing the pros and cons of each kind of schooling is an important step before you begin.14 The structure of these classes means you can learn, study, and produce work on your own schedule. Working full-time to support a family doesn’t have to be a complete roadblock.

Is there anything aside from a bachelor’s degree?

Yes! Often, “going to college” can seem like a synonym for “getting a B.A.” However, there are multiple – often shorter and less expensive – options for those considering education beyond high school. Trade schools are an option that can increase your job mobility and lifetime salary much like a B.A., but they are more directly linked to a career right from the start.

Trade schools train students for a specific job in a skilled career, like car mechanic, construction worker, electrician, cosmetologist, and massage therapist.15, 16 They offer hands-on training and sometimes apprenticeships with workers already in the field. They are geared directly toward a job, which means these programs last anywhere from a few months to a year, with some specialized programs lasting as much as two years.17

While there are many advertisements about quick and easy programs that will result in a degree necessary for these roles, consider looking into your local community colleges for these programs at a fraction of the cost. This is significantly easier to accomplish than a four-year bachelor’s degree, as it cuts the time in the classroom – and the time paying tuition. Like some college programs, trade schools are often flexible to accommodate other life obligations like another job or family care. Trade schools are a great option that set up a clear path to a successful career quickly and cost effectively.


Education leads to more options in employment, higher salary over a lifetime, and a greater understanding of the world around you. Education does not only refer to a bachelor’s degree, and it is certainly not only for “traditional” students. Non-traditional college students, in whatever form, should pursue higher education. It is beneficial to their career and life trajectories, accessible and affordable, and quickly becoming the most common college attendance path.


Author’s note: This article is written in part by inspiration received from working with the Underrepresented Graduate Students in Psychology’s (UGSP) High School Outreach program.




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16Online Schools Center. (2019) 30 High paying trade school degrees and jobs.

17Midwest Technical Institute. (2019) What is a trade school? Retrieved from