The Difference Between Traditional and Non-Traditional Students

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We all know the stereotypical vision of a college student. They’re eighteen years old and they’re leaving home for the first time. Their high school car is packed full, using every square inch to fit all the things they might need for their new college life. Their parents will drop them off, however far they might go, and within four years the teen will be a college graduate. While that’s been the vision for years, it hasn’t actually been the reality for quite some time. In fact, 74% of students have at least one trait of the typical nontraditional student. So, that begs the question, what exactly is the difference between a traditional and nontraditional student? And why does it matter?

Traditional Students 

Traditional students are who you would expect to be in a college program. They have been out of high school for less than a year and are most likely going to school full-time. The traditional student will usually finish school in the prescribed amount of time – i.e. four years at a university. When choosing schools, traditional students typically focus on more emotional reasons for attending college.

Campus Life

While rates of students living in dorms is going down (in 2016, only 15% of all undergraduate students lived on campus), campus life is still a large contributing factor among traditional students when making a college decision. Traditional students will want to know that there is a place for them on campus, whether that is in their department, as a part of a sorority or fraternity, or in some other extracurricular activity.

Team Sports

While nontraditional students view higher education as more of an investment in their careers, traditional students have more of an emotional connection to the school they choose to attend after high school. Community is a huge part of the “traditional” college experience, especially the sense of community that comes with sporting events at colleges.

Finding Their Path

Not all traditional students go to college with a career path solidified. Many students use the first couple of years at a university to determine potential career paths, taking different classes to find out what they’re passionate about, choose a major, and figure out what they might like to do post-graduation. This form of self-discovery sets traditional students apart from nontraditional students, who usually know what they want out of a higher education institution before enrolling.

Nontraditional Students 

Nontraditional students are categorized as students who fall outside the typical lifecycle of a postsecondary student. Attributes of a nontraditional student include:

  • Part-time enrollment

  • Financially independent from parents

  • Having at least one dependent (not including a spouse)

  • Taking over a year after high school to enroll in college

  • Being employed full-time

  • Received a nontraditional form of a high school diploma, such as a GED

Usually, nontraditional students are adult learners looking to return to school to either start a new career or get a leg up in the career they work in. Nontraditional students are looking for different features in a college than traditional students.

Accelerated Programs

Most of the time, nontraditional students return to school in order to get the career they want or to make advancements in their current career. Because of this, most nontraditional students are looking for a way to graduate from school earlier. Whether this is by receiving certifications, shorter courses, or using transfer credits toward graduation, nontraditional students want to see the finish line when they enroll in a program.


In addition to having access to accelerated programs, nontraditional students need to know that the program will work with their schedule. Since most nontraditional students have outside obligations such as a full-time job or a family to care for, knowing a college has options that will make learning flexible, like online school, is important.


Above anything else, nontraditional students value transparency about their education. While traditional students typically rely on their emotions to make a college decision, nontraditional students need to see the full picture. In addition to seeing the decisions within their desired program, nontraditional students want to see all financial options when paying for higher education.

Engine Academy 

The key to having successful student acquisition and enrollment of both traditional and nontraditional students lies in post-secondary institutions meeting the student where they’re at and being present along every step of the enrollment process. Engine is dedicated to helping colleges across the country facilitate the needs of students and increase their enrollment and retention rates. This is accomplished through numerous training and development programs as well as invaluable podcasts that will help your admissions team transform the way they recruit new students and incentivize current ones.

Click here to learn more about all that Engine has to offer and how your institution can make both traditional and nontraditional students feel welcome.

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