When thinking of a college student, most people picture an 18-year-old recent high school grad whose parents are footing the tuition bill. Having a GED, being married, or attending college over the age of 25 can deem you a nontraditional student. And if you’re looking to go back to school later in life, you may feel like a fish out of water.


However, enrolling in college as a nontraditional student doesn’t have to be complicated or isolating. In fact, according to a study by the National Center for Education Statistics, almost 75% of U.S. college students can be considered nontraditional. This is partially due to the varied definitions, but it still stands to reason that you’re not alone.


Many universities are equipped to offer flexibility for nontraditional students. However, some are behind the curve. Here are five tips to ensure you’re finding the right college as a nontraditional student.

1. Visit Campus

There are many reasons to go on a campus tour. You can meet faculty and staff, visit academic buildings, and get to know campus resources. There’s a lot to see and do in a short amount of time. If you’ve never toured a college campus, you may feel overwhelmed. Creating a college tour checklist can ease some of the stress associated with your visit.

For example, write down a list of questions that you want to ask your tour guide. The questions could be about support for nontraditional students or their personal experience on campus. Ask about hidden costs associated with attending their university. Aside from questions, write down all the places you want to see while on campus. While you may not be living in the dorms as a nontraditional student, you might be on campus for lunch. It’s never a bad idea to check out the dining halls, library, student union, or recreation building.

2. Understand Your Capacity

If you’re a parent, full-time employee, or both, your plate is likely already pretty full. With many responsibilities, finding a college that offers flexible learning options is important. Talking with an adviser about your academic needs and availability can set you up for success. Some universities will offer asynchronous online, synchronous online/in-person, or hybrid classes. Understanding the options offered by the university can help you make an informed decision.

In addition to the types of courses offered, it’s equally valuable to consider the credit hours you’ll need to take. While a traditional student may take 15-18 credit hours per semester, a nontraditional student might only want to take six to nine credits. Learning more about the teaching style of the university can dictate your decision. Hopefully, an institution’s teaching style is aligned with your ability. If so, you may be able to add a course or two to your workload.

3. Choose the Right Major

Deciding what to study as a nontraditional student can be stressful. Odds are, you’ve been in the workforce for at least a few years. Consider if you want to expand your knowledge in your field or use college to break into a new one. Understanding your motivation for attending college can assist you in choosing a major.

Talk with your admissions counselor about different program offerings. If you’re not sure what you want to study, ask if they have any skills assessments you can take. This type of assessment will take your personality, skills, and interests and generate options for future careers. You may also want to talk with professors or an academic adviser. These individuals are typically great at sharing more about the nitty gritty of the programs you’re interested in.

4. Apply for Financial Aid

If you’re planning to take out loans to pay for college, you should apply for scholarships offered by the university. In addition to university-based scholarships and grants, make sure that you apply to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. FAFSA deadlines vary from state to state, so be sure to check your personal deadlines. Some universities may offer industry-specific scholarships depending on the field that you’re currently working in or planning on going into. Chat with the university’s financial aid office to learn more about their offerings.

As a nontraditional student there may be additional opportunities for paying for college. Some employers will provide tuition reimbursements for employees’ education. While some companies have strict requirements on classes that qualify, others provide little guidance and offer great flexibility. If you work full-time, be sure to check with your human resources department about this perk before enrolling in classes.

5. Utilize Career Services

Career services will be a great asset to you while on campus. If you are going into a new field, it can be a tough transition. For example, transitioning from healthcare to tech can be complicated. However, you don’t have to do it alone. Working with a career strategist can help you understand industry-specific standards for resumes and interviewing.

Another way career services can assist nontraditional students is with applying for promotions at work. If you’re going to school to move up in your current company, the career center can typically coach you through that process. They will help you rewrite your resume to highlight your new education. They can even teach you how to sell yourself to your employer to improve your chances of a raise.

Whether you’re returning to college to complete your degree or enrolling for the first time, there’s a lot to consider. Be sure to explore all your options. Take a tour to learn more about the campus and ask a lot of questions. Remember, you’re paying for your education, and you deserve adequate support and resources. Ask for what you need, and you’ll be sure to succeed!




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