What Does it Mean to Be a Nontraditional Student?

Written by Coursera • Updated on Oct 12, 2021

Being classified as "nontraditional" in college is more common than you might think.

A man sits on a yellow sofa wit ha young toddler next to him. He's working on a college course on his laptop computer.

When you think of a typical college student, what comes to mind? If you’re envisioning a young adult, fresh out of high school, living in a dorm and attending classes full time, you’re probably not alone. That’s what we’ve come to define as a “traditional” student.

While there’s no single characteristic that defines a nontraditional student, the term typically defines students who do not fit the so-called “traditional” mold: 18 to 24 years old, enrolled in a four-year program immediately after high school, living on campus, and supported by their parents. 

It turns out that nontraditional undergraduates are quickly becoming the new traditional in higher education. Less than half of students (37 percent) attended a four-year institution immediately after high school, according to 2017 data from the Center for Law and Social Policy [1].

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at how academia defines nontraditional students, considerations you may have to take as one of these students, and tips for choosing the right degree program for your unique circumstances. 

What is a nontraditional student? 

Nontraditional students have become the majority at US colleges and universities. But this group of students is impossible to define with a single characteristic. These learners, sometimes referred to as post-traditional or adult students, bring with them a diversity of experiences and life circumstances.

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) defines seven nontraditional characteristics [2]. A student would only need to reflect one of these traits to be defined as “nontraditional” by the NCES: 

  • Older than 24 years of age

  • Delayed enrollment after high school

  • Attend college part time

  • Works full time

  • Financially independent from parents

  • Single Parent

  • Has dependents (other than spouse)

  • No high school diploma

Choosing a degree program as an adult student

Completing a degree program under any of the circumstances outlined by the NCES brings with it a unique set of challenges. As you research possible degree programs, keep these factors in mind.  

Work life balance

Adult students often face a greater challenge when it comes to maintaining work-life balance than their younger peers. You may be working full time, raising a family, or balancing other life obligations with your studies. 

What to look for in a degree program 

Flexibility is key when it comes to maintaining work-life balance. Consider degree programs that allow you to study part time. In an online or hybrid program, you’ll typically have the added flexibility to study when and where it’s most convenient for you. Plus, with online programs, you won’t have to relocate or find a new job in order to pursue your degree.

Read more: Should You Go Back to School? 7 Things to Consider


Paying for school

More than half of today’s students enrolled in colleges and universities qualify as financially independent, according to the Association of American Colleges and Universities [3]. Financing your education is a big investment, especially if you’re doing it on your own. Paying for school without accumulating debt might mean:

  • Studying part time while working

  • Pursuing employer reimbursement (programs where your company funds some or all of your education)

  • Submitting the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)

  • Applying for scholarships and grants 

Financial aid for adult students

While some scholarships require full-time enrollment, others specifically target older and nontraditional students. Start your scholarship search with these three sites:

*Scholarships.com: Fill out a profile and get matched with scholarships you qualify for.

*Fastweb.com: This scholarship database will email you matches and deadlines.

*Bold.org: Find smaller and niche scholarships you won’t see on other sites.


Explore these financial tools and resources to help fund your degree.

Transferring credits

If you already have some college credits from a community college, online program, or degree that you didn’t complete, you may be able to transfer them into your new program. Transferring existing credits can save you both time and money. 

Who to call to transfer credits

If you think you might have credits to transfer, call the admissions office at the school where you’d like to enroll and ask to speak with the transfer coordinator. This person should be able to answer your questions about what credits might qualify and might offer a cursory transcript review. 


Read more: Do College Credits Expire?

Educational outcomes

As an adult learner, you may be more concerned with the tangible outcomes of your degree program than peers right out of high school. Can you apply what you’re learning to your job? Will you qualify for better, higher-paying jobs after earning the degree? Will this degree help you shift into a new field? What kind of career support will you receive through your institution? 

These are all important questions to consider as you evaluate whether a degree program aligns with your professional goals.

Finding the right career and student services

As you research degree programs, find out how the school makes their career and student services available to students studying part time or off campus. Look for institutions that offer online self-service resources and the ability to meet with career counselors and student advisors on evenings or weekends. If you’re a parent and planning to attend classes in person, find out about any on-campus childcare options.


Next steps

Take the next step toward a bachelor’s degree by exploring affordable online options from top universities on Coursera. 


Bachelor of Science in Computer Science

University of London


Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences

University of North Texas


Bachelor of Science in Marketing

University of London


Bachelor of Science in Business Administration

University of London

Frequently asked questions (FAQ)

Related articles

Article sources

1. CLASP. "College Students Aren't Who You Think They Are, https://www.clasp.org/sites/default/files/publications/2017/08/2017June_CollegeStudentsArentWhoYouThinkTheyAre.pdf." Accessed October 11, 2021.

2. National Center for Education Statistics. "Nontraditional Undergraduates / Definitions and Data, https://nces.ed.gov/pubs/web/97578e.asp." Accessed October 11, 2021.

3. Association of American Colleges & Universities. "Misconceptions About Today's College Students, https://www.aacu.org/aacu-news/newsletter/2018/november/facts-figures." Accessed October 11, 2021.

4. Center for First-Generation Student Success. "First-Generation College Students Fact Sheet, https://firstgen.naspa.org/files/dmfile/FactSheet-01.pdf." Accessed October 11, 2021.

Written by Coursera • Updated on Oct 12, 2021

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

Learn without limits