The New Traditional Student

Change is a constant in New Hampshire education. I work at a New Hampshire community college, and we’re always evolving to accommodate new policy, technology, and new needs from the community. But one change I’m especially excited about is updating the idea of who “traditional” students are.

For a long time, traditional college students were thought of as recent high school grads enrolled full-time in four-year institutions. They were young learners without major life responsibilities. Because of this idea, colleges organized marketing campaigns, class schedules, and support services with traditional students in mind. But most students don’t actually fall in this category, and have had to figure out alternative paths toward a degree. So the more we can establish and normalize “nontraditional” road maps and supports, the more students will reach their goals.

College students wear many hats

While traditional students are still out there, colleges are shifting attention to nontraditional students; and for good reason. A 2018 NPR report said most college students today are nontraditional, meaning they are:

  • Financially independent
  • Veterans
  • Working full time
  • Single caregivers
  • Caring for children or other dependents
  • Hi/SET or GED recipients
  • Adult learners who took time between high school and college
  • Part-time students, or
  • Online students

Overall, 74 percent of undergraduates fall into at least one of these categories.

Nontraditional students in New Hampshire

The image of a traditional college student is dated, but persistent, and can make students feel left out. I’ve seen this first hand; students who worry college isn’t for them, that it’s too late to finish their degree, or that they’ll stand out in the classroom. However, many of their classmates are in the same boat. Like the veteran who leveraged his military experience into a full year of college, earned his associate, then bachelor’s, and is now a career counselor for veterans. Or the self-taught graphic designer who moved to New Hampshire from Haiti to earn his cybersecurity degree, and now works in IT. Or the single mom who overcame housing insecurity to finish her marketing degree.

Even recent high school graduates may need nontraditional options to accommodate work and family responsibilities such as online or weekend classes. Or, they may want an accelerated learning program to join the workforce as fast as possible.

A male and female student pictured in their graduation gowns

Nontraditional students Jonathan Starks and Alicia Ferraiuolo earned their AA in 2008. Alicia then earned her BA and now works in higher ed. Jonathan went into the workforce and is now at a Nashua nonprofit.

Resources for nontraditional students

The good news is New Hampshire colleges are responding to what modern college students need. They support nontraditional students with flexible schedules, online education, VA benefits counselors, more transfer agreements, credit-for-experience, accelerated schedules, and scholarships that include adult learners.

However, if a student sees something missing from their college, it’s worth it to speak up. For instance, I’ve seen student feedback inspire my college to expand its food pantry and open a “dress for success” closet with free interview clothes. College leadership also opened the campus for Saturday classes, and encouraged the launch of new career training programs.

The shift to embrace nontraditional needs helps to meet students where they’re at, and reinforces their path to success. It’s also important to tell their stories, and let them know they might just be the new traditional student on campus after all.

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