Going the Extra Mile: Understanding Non-Traditional Students

When thinking about the demographics of students currently enrolled in colleges and universities, we often first consider traditional students, between ages 18-24. However, enrollment trends in traditional, blended, and online programs are revealing that nontraditional students, those ages 25 and older, are becoming more and more prominent in the classroom. Today I want to discuss the dynamics of nontraditional students, the pressures they face, and what it means to go the extra mile in order to understand their needs and enable them to succeed.      

What is a Non-Traditional Student? 

According to the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), 47% of all students currently enrolled in colleges and universities are age 25 and older. In addition, a Barnes & Noble College survey, Achieving Success for Nontraditional Students, revealed that in this decade, nontraditional students’ enrollment “is projected to increase twice as fast as enrollment of traditional students.” 

Chief editor of The Quad magazine, Dave Tomar, notes The National Center for Education Statistics’ characteristics of nontraditional students—they often identify with one or more of the following characteristics: 

  • Delayed enrollment in postsecondary education, 
  • Part-time attendance, 
  • Full-time employment,
  • Financial independence,
  • Having dependents other than a spouse,
  • Being a single parent, or
  • Lacking a high school diploma

With all these characteristics come multiple responsibilities, making it easy to see why nontraditional students are under so much additional pressure. It’s a great reminder that all students face unique challenges and stresses outside of their learning experinces.

Under Pressure 

R Lee Viar IV, president of the Association for Nontraditional Students in Higher Education, observes that while traditional and nontraditional students may be pursuing the same degree, nontraditional students often have to “work exponentially harder, because they’re getting pulled in so many different directions”.

Because of the pressure of these responsibilities, “76% of nontraditional students report feeling imbalanced and 58% report feeling stressed” (Reese). Another recent Barnes & Noble College study, Supporting Nontraditional At-Risk Students, revealed that these students are more likely to become at-risk not because of age, gender, or financial background, but simply because they feel that no one understands or can relate to the pressures, responsibilities, and lifestyle they face. 

So how do we help this group of students realize they aren’t alone? We do it by walking a mile in their shoes, and then going the extra mile. 

Going the Extra Mile: Personal Experience 

Author, Lynda Meyers, has an interesting twist on an old adage, “I could walk a mile in your shoes, but I already know they’re just as uncomfortable as mine. Let’s walk next to each other instead.” Walking with nontraditional students means empathizing with them, helping them see that they are not alone—and that they have the ability and support they need to complete the course. 

I have experience in teaching and walking with nontraditional students since they make up the majority of my online speech class. During the last run of my class, which is a fast-paced and rigorous 6-week course, one of my students told her classmates and myself that speech was the last class she needed to complete before graduating. Around Week 3, this student emailed me, telling me she was planning to withdraw from the class. Aside from being late on a few assignments, her work had been excellent, so I was surprised. When I responded to her email, I told her I was sorry to hear she was withdrawing and asked a simple question: “Is there anything I can do to help you?”     

That question changed everything. From then on, that student was open with me about the things that were going on in her life. As a full-time employee and online student myself, I was able to empathize with her, because I understood how overwhelmed she was with multiple responsibilites. As I walked with her throughout the remainder of the course, I made an extra effort to support her, encourage her, and ensure she had the resources she needed to complete the course and her program. 

As you walk with your students in your courses, ask yourself what similarities you see between yourself and each student. Chances are, you’ll have a lot more in common than you realized. 

  • Are you a parent or a grandparent with family responsibilities? 
  • Are you currently enrolled in an online program or furthering your education? 
  • Are you juggling multiple responsibilities at once? 
  • Do you and your students share similar passions or interests outside of class?

Recognizing these similarities, as well as others, will help you go the extra mile in order to identify each student’s needs, relate to each student, and encourage and enable them to succeed in your course.

What are some ways you’ve gone the extra mile as you’ve walked with your students? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter! 


Moody, J. (2019, May 30). A college guide for nontraditional students. U.S. News & World Report. Retrieved from https://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/articles/2019-05-30/a-college-guide-for-nontraditional-students 
Reese, L. (2018, June 7). 10 things you need to know about nontraditional students. Retrieved from Direct Network website: https://directnetwork.mbsdirect.net/10-things-you-need-to-know-about-non-traditional-students
Tomar, D. A. (2018, September 18). Why are nontraditional students so much happier in college? The Quad. Retrieved from https://thebestschools.org/magazine/nontraditional-college-student-satisfaction/

Author: Ann Broda, Instructional Designer

Ann is pursuing her PhD in Communication through Regent University and also teaches speech online at Olivet Nazarene University. In her free time she enjoys spending time with family and friends, participating in theatre, drinking coffee, biking, traveling, and reading.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: