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A College Guide for Nontraditional Students

Many nontraditional college students must balance family and work responsibilities with academics.

Making sure a support system is in place is one of the first steps to success.(GETTY IMAGES)

PURSUING A college degree rarely comes easy for any student, but adding work and family life can increase the difficulty of that challenge. For many nontraditional students, that's the reality they face: juggling classes alongside the responsibilities of raising and supporting a family.

Sarah Petty, a student at the University of Richmond in Virginia, knows that grind well. She left school more than a decade ago before returning to college in 2017. Now, at age 34, Petty is on track to graduate in December with an education degree, all while raising three children with her husband.

"Initially, I said I just want this piece of paper, I just want this degree, I want to finish it because I want to have my bachelor's and to show my children how important higher education is. But I feel that it went from transactional to transformational," Petty says.

Academics tend to think of traditional-age students as those from 18 to 24 who enter college directly out of high school. When it comes to nontraditional students, experts generally agree that term is defined by characteristics such as having independent status for financial aid, having at least one dependent or more, or being a single parent. Other characteristics include not having earned the traditional high sch0ol diploma, delaying enrollment in higher education, attending college part time or working full time.


"A traditional-age student and a nontraditional student are getting the same degree, but in my opinion the nontraditional student has to work exponentially harder, because they're getting pulled in so many different directions," says R. Lee Viar IV, president of the Maryland-based nonprofit the Association for Nontraditional Students in Higher Education.

The differences, Viar says, come down to a separate set of challenges for nontraditional students. Much of a nontraditional student's schedule may be dictated by work or family obligations, often leaving them to carve out time for homework or studying for an exam only after those responsibilities are taken care of. That necessitates a support system outside of the classroom.

For Petty, working with her husband to coordinate child care and family activities made all the difference. She describes the effort as incredibly structured and organized. "Without that organization, things can easily fall apart," Petty explains.

Making sure that support system is in place is one of the first steps to success, according to Viar: "They need to see if they're going to have support at home or at work first. If they do not have that support, they're going to have a harder time succeeding and passing."

To develop that support system, experts say students should sit down with their family and explain what going back to school will require, the time needed to dedicate to their studies and other factors that will go into finishing a degree program.

Support may also be necessary from the school, which can come in different forms. In some instances that is institutional aid, which helps students pay for college, whereas in others it may be taking advantage of services on campus such as a career center and tutoring. Beyond that, organizations exist that may allow nontraditional students opportunities to become involved on campus.

One such organization is the Non-Traditional Student Council at the University of Wyoming, which aims to give nontraditional students a voice on campus. James Wheeler, project coordinator for the Associated Students of the University of Wyoming, feels that nontraditional students struggle to feel welcome on campus and, due to time constraints, they lack the same access to extracurricular activities that their traditional-age peers enjoy. That's why he encourages nontraditional students to get involved, if they can, in the hope that they develop a sense of belonging.

That's exactly what Petty did, becoming president of the University of Richmond's School of Professional Studies Student Government Association. Developing relationships with classmates helped her feel at home and forged a close connection to a campus she's come to love.

"Most nontraditional students, I feel, are going for that piece of paper. But by finding ways to become involved, and getting to know your peers and getting to know your professors and finding that support system, it truly becomes a transformational experience," Petty says.

Petty, who plans to become a teacher following graduation, decided on the University of Richmond because it fit her goals. Finding the right fit is one of the most important decisions a student must make, experts say, whether that's a specific school or degree program.


"First of all, they need to know before they call any admissions people, or apply online or anything, they need to know what they're going for, and why. Do some research," says Viar, who also suggests nontraditional students consider how viable a career field will be in years to come.

Nontraditional students also need to consider accessibility, Viar says, and decide if they can manage a residential program or if online classes are a better fit. For Petty, that was another factor in her decision to attend Richmond, as she wanted an on-campus program near where she lived.

"I think online is appealing at first, but you have to take a step back and think about yourself as a learner. Evaluate if you really think you'd be successful in that type of learning environment," Petty says, adding that she feels more stimulated in a physical classroom.

When it comes to considering the right school, look at graduation rates, retention and job placement, Viar says. And, finally, consider cost.



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