Who Are Today’s Post-Traditional College Students?


By: Christopher Tashjian Mar 13, 2017

Does the following surprise you? “Most students taking college classes today are NOT recent high school graduates. This is especially true of those studying online.”

Most of them haven’t graduated high school recently? What else do we know about these college students?

  • First of all, they are diverse in background.
  • As a result, they have disparate, sometimes unique, needs.
  • Above all, you must think of and treat them differently from those who start right after high school.

“Traditionally”, students went straight from high school to college. Often, they had no idea what they were going to study, or what direction a career might take. This has changed over time. The student base has largely pushed off in pursuit of a paycheck, family, or other goals. We call the new majority of adult students “post-traditional” students. To attract, enroll, and retain them you must understand who they are first. Once you do that, you must work to support their ongoing progress in your courses and programs.

Click Here to Download the Post-Traditional College Students Report

Defining post-traditional students

The majority of students enrolled in online classes today are post-traditional.

“No longer is the ‘typical’ undergraduate student 18-22 years of age studying full-time and residing on or very near campus.”
-Carol B. Aslanian, from Post-Traditional College Students: Attracting and Serving the New Majority

In her groundbreaking report, Carol shatters some readers’ notion of the traditional student. But is the post-traditional student simply an older adult?
… Not quite. Or at least, not merely.
Post-Traditional Students…

  • Are learners who have work experience, or are working.
  • Study full-time and part-time.
  • Seek accelerated programs at all times of the day.
  • Use a variety of learning formats: classroom, online, and “hybrid”.
  • Pursue a multitude of topics and programs, but most often career-related.

Adult students tend to choose online programs for their flexibility. Best is when they can access materials through mobile devices and smartphones. As a result, institutions that offer flexible options tend to find more success with them.
The National Center for Education Statistics produced Nontraditional Undergraduates / Definitions and Data. This report assigns five specific attributes to today’s post-traditional student.

Five Attributes of Today’s Post-Traditional Student

  1. Enrollment Delay: The time between high school graduation and college enrollment. For post-traditional students, this amount of time may be significant. For example, some start careers, then return to school to advance in or change a career. These students have likely worked several years after completing high school.
  2. Enrolled Part Time: Many post-traditional students balance numerous responsibilities. These cannot attend college full-time. Some working adults choose courses or degree programs that offer part-time enrollment. Thus, they can balance advancing educational goals with other important priorities.
  3. Financially Independent: Traditional college students are usually dependent on their parents for money. In contrast to recent high school graduates, post-traditional students don’t. Some work to support their own college expenses. Others obtain financial assistance through student loans or grants.
  4. Works Full Time: Many are working full-time; others at least have worked full-time. In either case, post-traditional students have career experience that provides context for learning. Work also provides a source of self-motivation! This is especially true when academic goals are related to career aspirations.
  5. May Have Dependents or are a Single Parent: Talk about different! This may associate a greater sense of maturity with post-traditional students. Arguably more life experiences implies greater context to understand and apply what they learn in class.

These characteristics are applicable to both undergraduate and graduate students. For example, Traditional Tess graduates high school, completes undergraduate, and begins her career. Sometime later, Tess decides to change course. She enrolls in a graduate program necessary for her new career choice. At this point Tess is probably paying her own way, and may have started a family. We know she was working full-time and that her degree aspirations are career-related. For once-Traditional Tess, an online program may be very appealing to a now 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.

Adult learners want to be involved in the process of learning. Likewise, they accept responsibility for that involvement. Adults are goal-driven. They seek college courses and degree programs for specific reasons; typically career goals. Many — including empty nesters and displaced homemakers — have even more 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.”
-Carol Aslanian, Four Emerging Trends in Adult Higher Education

In a challenging economy, theoretically settled adults may find themselves looking for work. As a result, many will realize they need [new] degrees to remain competitive in the job market. Still others, who have spent years developing existing careers… might want to try something new. Some adults are trying non-traditional occupations, or NTOs. Non-traditional occupations can be differently challenging, rewarding, better fits, or offer better salaries. NTOs are those where 75 percent of the workforce is the opposite gender. Most noteworthy are women in welding or engineering, or men in nursing.

Post-traditional students and distance learning

It’s no wonder that the field of distance learning has grown so rapidly! This is especially true as traditional colleges and universities add online options.

One advantage of adding a distance learning program is scale. With a distance learning program in place, schools are no longer limited to one geographical area. In fact, in 2013, 2.65 million students studied exclusively online. This number is projected to be 5 million by 2020. The majority of these students will be post-traditional. They will be working adults pursuing degrees for specific purposes.

Many of today’s post-traditional students choose online programs. They see online programs as alternatives to on-campus degree programs, or a way around perceived barriers. Above all, post-traditional students want to meet academic goals, but value flexibility.

Do you want your post-traditional students to succeed? Not just enroll, but graduate? Post-traditional students need specific support, regardless of age. While they tend to have better time management, for example, they may lack technological savvy or academic skills.

Want to learn more about today’s post-traditional students? Ways to attract and service them? Post-Traditional College Students: Attracting and Serving the New Majority.