On this blog, we often discuss the reasons professional and career colleges can offer tremendous opportunities to non-traditional students who may not otherwise have a chance at higher education. But what exactly is a non-traditional (or “at-risk”) student, and how can those of us in the higher education space ensure that those students receive the best education possible?

First, let’s define what it means to be a non-traditional student.  According to the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), students are considered non-traditional if they have one or more of the following characteristics when they are first-time, first year students:

  • Financially independent
  • Over the age of 25
  • Delayed entry into college
  • Full time work
  • Attending school part-time
  • Have dependents
  • Single parent
  • No high school diploma

You may be surprised to learn that during the 1999-2000 academic year, 73 percent of all undergraduates had one or more of these characteristics. In other words, as NCES states, “the ‘traditional’ undergraduate—characterized here as one who earns a high school diploma, enrolls full time immediately after finishing high school, depends on parents for financial support, and either does not work during the school year or works part time – is the exception rather than the rule.”

While the majority of today’s undergraduate population is considered non-traditional, however, research shows that these students are less likely than their traditional counterparts to attain a degree after five years of enrollment.  As a result, the characteristics listed above are often seen as risk factors in higher education, since they indicate that a student is less likely to graduate or achieve other academic and professional goals.

Despite the challenges presented by these risk factors, we have found that non-traditional students at professional and career colleges are achieving incredible amounts of success even when the odds are stacked against them.  These students may be academically underprepared, balancing work or family life, or much older than their peers, yet the successes they have in the classroom can be remarkable considering their out-of-school responsibilities.

From where I sit, there are several best practices that institutions of higher education—and professional colleges in particular—can adopt to help non-traditional students balance these commitments for greater academic and professional achievement:

  1. Develop high-quality e-learning programs to give students maximum flexibility to take classes wherever works best with their busy schedules.
  2. Leverage mobile technologies for students who live an on-the-go lifestyle so they can access coursework on a smart phone or tablet PC.
  3. Offer asynchronous learning so students have flexibility to take classes on their own time.
  4. Flip the classroom by delivering virtual lectures and doing coursework in person, so students can get the most out of their time with their instructors and peers.
  5. Provide opportunities for continuous learning so students can reach back for important information when they are on the job or whenever they will need it most.

What would you add to the list above? We would love to hear your thoughts and questions in the comments below!

If you are interested in learning more about the impact professional and career colleges can have on non-traditional students, check out our post on how we define “success” in higher education, or visit articles here and here from Career College Central featuring stories of the challenges faced by non-traditional students.

Share This Article

Twitter Facebook LinkedIn Pinterest Email