Who Are Today’s Post-Traditional College Students?

Post-Traditional College Students

You may not be surprised by the fact that most students who are taking college classes now, especially online college courses, have not recently graduated from high school.

However, what may surprise you is that adults who are enrolling in online college courses now are not only diverse in nature, but they also have unique needs, which differentiates them from their traditional counterparts who enroll in programs right after high school.

Traditionally students went from high school to college, often without knowing what direction they were going to take for their career; however, this has changed over time as the student base has pushed off school in pursuit of a paycheck, family, or other goals. This new cohort of adult students is referred to as post-traditional students, and in order to attract, enroll and retain them, you must understand who they are and how to support their ongoing progress while they are enrolled in your courses and programs.


Click Here to Download the Post-Traditional College Students Report


Defining post-traditional students

A majority of students who are enrolled in online classes now could be classified as post-traditional students because of their learning preferences and social characteristics.

“No longer is the ‘typical’ undergraduate student 18-22 years of age studying full-time and residing on or very near campus,” explained Carol B. Aslanian, President and Founder of Aslanian Market Research, in her new report, Post-Traditional College Students: Attracting and Serving the New Majority. Does this mean that an easy way to classify the post-traditional student is to state that they are simply an older adult?

Absolutely not.

“These are learners who have work experience or are working, who study full-time and part-time, seek accelerated programs at all times of the day, and study in multiple formats—classroom, hybrid, and online, and across a multiple array of topics that are most often career-related,” noted Aslanian. Most adult students seek an online degree program for the flexibility provided, especially when they are able to access courses and course materials through mobile devices and smartphones.

In Nontraditional Undergraduates / Definitions and Data, a report published by the National Center for Education Statistics, there are five specific attributes used to define the characteristics of today’s post-traditional student. They are:

  1. Enrollment Delay: This refers to the amount of time between graduation from high school and enrollment in a college degree program. For many adults, the amount of time is significant. For example, adults may decide to return to school to advance their career or to change careers, which means they have likely worked several years after they have completed high school.
  2. Enrolled Part Time: Many working adults are balancing numerous responsibilities and cannot attend college in a full-time capacity. Online courses and degree programs that offer part-time enrollment options provide working adults with an opportunity to work towards meeting their educational goals while balancing other important priorities.
  3. Financially Independent: Traditional college students, who are usually recent high school graduates, are often financially dependent upon their parents for support. In contrast, post-traditional students are usually financially independent and either work to support their own college expenses, or they obtain financial assistance through student loans or grants.
  4. Works Full Time: A significant number of post-traditional students are working, or have worked, full time and that means they have career experience that provides a context for learning in the classroom. It may also provide a source of self-motivation, especially if their academic goals are related to their career goals.
  5. May Have Dependents or are a Single Parent: These are two attributes that further distinguish traditional from post-traditional students, and it also reflects a sense of maturity that can be found among post-traditional students. The more life experiences students have, the more they are likely to understand and apply what has been learned in their studies.

Although these characteristics are noted for undergraduate students, you will also find that they are applicable to graduate online students as well. As an example, a traditional student graduated from high school, completed an undergraduate degree, and began a career. Sometime later as an adult, a decision is made to change careers and this now will require enrolling in a graduate degree program. This is when an online degree program becomes very appealing to this adult post-traditional graduate student.


Click Here to Download the Post-Traditional College Students Report


Unique needs of post-traditional students

Adults as students tend to be self-directed in nature, which means they have a readiness to learn.

They want to be involved in the process of learning and accept responsibility for their involvement. They are also goal-driven and seek college courses and degree programs for specific reasons and to meet career goals. For some post-traditional students, including empty nesters and displaced homemakers, they have unique needs.

“To advance in a current job, transition into a new career or just remain competitive in the modern job market, many adults 45 years of age and older will need higher education,” described Aslanian in a recent blog post titled: Four Emerging Trends in Adult Higher Education.

During a challenging economy, adults may find themselves having to search for a job at a time in life when they believe they are settled, only to realize they must now obtain a degree if they want to remain competitive. Another reason why adults may change careers, even after having spent significant time developing an existing career, is the opportunity to try something new. Some adults are trying what is called a non-traditional occupation, or NTO, in order to find work that is new, challenging, rewarding, a better fit, and potentially offers a better salary. For example, a man who decides to make a change from an office career to pursuing a nursing career.


Post-traditional students and distance learning

It’s no wonder that the field of distance learning has grown so rapidly, especially as traditional colleges and universities have added online courses and programs.

With a distance learning program in place, the potential student base can be expanded upon as schools are no longer limited to one geographical area. In fact, in 2013, 2.65 million students studied exclusively online and by 2020, a projected 5 million will be studying exclusively online. The majority of these students will be post-traditional, working adults who are pursuing courses and degrees for specific purposes.

Many of today’s post-traditional students are choosing online programs as alternatives to on-campus degree programs or as a way to re-enter higher education by working around some of the barriers associated with achieving an on-campus degree. Post-traditional students will be seeking degree programs that offer flexibility and have the potential to meet their academic goals. 

Regardless of their age, in order for post-traditional students to successfully matriculate through your institution, you must provide them with support. While these students may have better time management skills due to being accustomed to juggling multiple professional and personal responsibilities, they may lack related technological or academic skills to complete your programs.

To learn more about today’s post-traditional student and ways to attract and service this growing demographic, download: Post-Traditional College Students: Attracting and Serving the New Majority.

Post-Traditional Students Report

Anthony Levato

Anthony Levato

I'm the Director of Marketing at EducationDynamics. I enjoy taking classes online, reading and writing about marketing, and riding my bicycle in New York City. You may contact me directly at alevato@educationdynamics.com

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