Yesterday's Nontraditional Students Become Today's Norm

By Catherine Groux
Posted October 02, 2012 12:00 PM

Many adults are going back to school to earn associate's, bachelor's and master's degrees.
Many adults are going back to school to earn associate's, bachelor's and master's degrees.
As recently as a decade ago, college classrooms were filled with traditional students, or 18- to 20-year-olds who took on-campus classes full time. Today, this is no longer the case, as more adults in their 30s, 40s and 50s have decided to go back to school and update their skills, redefining what it means to be a "traditional" student.

The Rise of the 'Nontraditional' Student

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the number of college students under the age of 25 increased by 34% between 2000 and 2010. In this time, the number of adult learners above the age of 25 grew by 42%. Through 2020, the NCES predicts this trend will continue, meaning in the future, adults may no longer be deemed "nontraditional" students.

"Across the country we're seeing an increase in age of college students," Mike Rose, an author and professor at the University of California Los Angeles, recently told the Metro. "We're seeing people that have been in the workforce and have started families. This has been a significant trend for a while, so pretty soon we won't use the term 'nontraditional.'" 

Poor Economy Pushes Adults Toward College

One of the prime factors behind the growing number of adult students is the poor economy. Since the recession began in 2007, many Americans have found themselves without a job or a sufficient salary. According to a February survey by Bellevue University, almost one in three Americans say they are still struggling to make ends meet.

In order to land a better job or earn a higher salary, many adults are opting to go back to school to update their skills, knowing a degree will help them be more competitive in the modern job market. The Bellevue University survey shows that today, about 70% of Americans between the ages of 25 and 44 are thinking about pursuing higher education to secure a better life for themselves and their families.

Schools Support Their Changing Classrooms

As classrooms across the country evolve to include more adults, many colleges are working to provide as much assistance to these adults as possible. Most schools offer scholarships and financial aid to nontraditional students, while others provide services like on-campus daycare centers, career counselors and tutoring centers.

Alan Tripp, chief executive officer of Inside Track, told The Washington Post that these services show colleges understand how important adult learners will be in increasing the nation's graduation rates.

"Roughly 40% of America’s college students are nontraditional students," he wrote. "They are workers who’ve gone back to school, former members of the military embarking on new careers and single parents wanting to do better for their families. They could also be one of the most important game-changers in the ongoing national discussion on college completion and the continuing dialogue at College Inc. about how to fix higher education."

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