College students earn degrees at varying ages and different points in their life. Some are fresh out of high school when they enroll on campus. college program. Other students are married or supporting families when they begin their education, and some go back to school during  retirement. Students can attend school online or a traditional brick-and-mortar classroom. With all this diversity in higher education, a lot of misconceptions can arise about traditional versus nontraditional students.

What is a Nontraditional Student?

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, a nontraditional student is typically a postsecondary student who is 25 or older and does not live on campus. The definition, while helpful, is not entirely accurate. Students can still be considered nontraditional if they meet even one aspect of the definition. For instance, nearly 2.1 million off-campus college students are parents, and many are younger than 25. Members of the military who study online may be older than 25 but are living on base and not on a college campus. At some colleges, most students live on campus regardless of their age.

In general, a nontraditional student includes anyone who does not fit the typical image of a recent high school graduate. Some schools, however, maintain specific requirements for classification as a nontraditional student. At West Virginia State University (WVSU), students must be 25 or older, and completed high school at least four years prior to enroll in the fully online Regents Bachelor of Arts (RBA) degree. RBA students cannot live on the WVSU campus because the program is designed for distance education.

Why be a Nontraditional Student?

There is great career potential when holding a bachelor’s degree. Investing in education will likely pay off in a higher salary and better benefits in the future, and that’s why the number of nontraditional students is on the rise. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports enrollment to postsecondary institutions of students age 25 and older increased by 13 percent from 2005 to 2015, which was only two percent less than the enrollment rate of traditional students.

Factors besides salary incentives and career advancement may factor into increased nontraditional student enrollment. In a study published in the 2012 Journal of College Student Development, researchers surveyed traditional and nontraditional students to find differences in coping strategies. They discovered that traditional students were far more likely to employ emotion-oriented coping strategies.

“They tend to focus on their emotions when they confront a challenge,” said Marcus Johnson, Ph.D., lead author of the study. “For example, if they begin to feel stress about a deadline, instead of being active in trying to meet the deadline, they are more likely to focus on negative emotions.” Nontraditional students, the study found, are more likely to employ task-oriented coping, such as thinking through next steps and making a plan of action.

In a follow-up study, nontraditional students were reported having higher levels of self-efficacy. “(Nontraditional students) have a more optimistic belief that if they put effort into their studies, they will succeed and report better relationships with professors,” Johnson said.

The study also found that older students report higher levels of internal motivators, which could stem from career advancement goals.

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At WVSU, the online RBA enables working adults to complete their studies in a flexible, convenient environment.

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Nontraditional Students are a Step Ahead

Each nontraditional student brings a unique and valuable background to the college experience, and many colleges now offer credit for prior learning experience. Students can apply to have professional seminars, foreign language skills, military training and workplace certifications count toward credit requirements. Students may need to take tests or submit portfolios to be evaluated for credit for prior learning.

At WVSU, nontraditional students can often use previous work responsibilities for school credit. The school’s RBA program requires 120 credits, but prospective students can transfer up to 72 of those. Transfer credits may come from previous college courses or work experiences.

Students who qualify for WVSU’s online Regents Bachelor of Arts degree should talk with an enrollment counselor to learn more about the degree’s requirements, admission criteria, and credit by prior learning.