Traditional vs. Non-Traditional Student Issues

Traditional vs. Non-Traditional Student Issues

Tones, Fraser, Elder, and White (2009) argue that there are two major student groups which are of significant importance to research as a result of their adjustment to the university system, the resulting study experiences and the persistence they carry in their studies. The first of the two groups is the traditional students who face issues in transitioning from their adolescent or teenage years to adulthood which takes place at the university or college level where they separate from their friends and family and have to adjust to the new social and academic environments which creates stress for them. The second group is the non-traditional or more mature students who have to balance their day-to-day activities such as work or business with this new academic environment. The diversity of non-traditional students is the major reason for the problems that they face. This is because they are frequently characterized by being on the outside of the normal age range of college and university students who are between 18 and 24 years of age. However, Bell (2012) argues that age is not the only problem that they face. They also have different experiences that make them different from the typical traditional students. Examples of nontraditional students include older people who are returning to their college to further their education in order to further their careers or begin other careers or those who never attended any undergraduate programs and have just decided to pursue undergraduate education. Most of them are usually working part-time or full-time and thus have to attend classes on a part-time or evening basis or where they are required to take classes full-time, they have to take a study-leave or a sabbatical in order to do this. As a result of this tight schedule that they have to run, non-traditional students experience different issues as a result of greater responsibilities and adjustments that are required in order to succeed in their academics. Research on the university students has over the years shifted focus to pay more attention to the nontraditional students who have become more popular in universities and colleges.

Advantages of non-traditional students

Most colleges and universities have changed their environments to cater for the increasing number of nontraditional students. Most of them have created a blended learning model whereby they create programs that suit the time availability of non-traditional students thus allowing them to engage in other activities such as work or business and still have time to spend in the learning institutions. Many campuses have come up with distance-learning programs as well as weekend classes whereby the students are able to take advantage of their free time. Some universities and colleges have also opened satellite campuses in towns which enables students to take their classes in campuses closer to their geographical location.

Non-traditional students also have greater experiences that provide them with a deeper understanding of the study objectives and goals. They are also able to prioritize their time better to balance their work life and study life. Miller (2007) argues that as a result of this, they know that success depends more on their input than their experience which gives them a motivating factor for their success. Non-traditional students also benefit from accelerated class schedules and remedial education which allows them to elevate their level of education in a more flexible way as compared to that of traditional students.

Issues faced by non-traditional students

Inability to participate in extracurricular activities

Non-traditional students differ greatly from the traditional students which makes them unable to integrate into the normal student life and other campus activities which are more tailored for the traditional students. Andrews (2001) argues that though nontraditional students have a stronger sense of commitment to the attainment of a university degree, they have time constraints on their part which creates obstacles to their commitment. Non-traditional students have a wider sphere of interest as a result of their wider experience which creates conflict with their and thus they have to change a lot in their lives in order to meet their academic needs. Most of these students are married and have children while others spend most of their time in their places of work or in their businesses. Therefore balancing their studies with these other external requirements leaves them with no time to engage in extracurricular activities which places them at a risk of not being able to complete their studies. This is because many universities or colleges require students to engage in extracurricular activities which the non-traditional students are unable to engage in. Zajacova, Lynch, and Espenshade (2005) argue that more research is needed on this group and universities should explore how they need to change in order to meet the needs of this growing group of students by creating a learning environment that meets both the educational needs of the nontraditional students and developed intervention strategies to reduce the chances of not being able to complete their studies.

Higher drop-out rates

Weaver and Qi (2005) conducted a study on the drop-out rate of traditional and non-traditional students and found that the persistence rates for nontraditional students are lower where the university does not create a supportive social environment for them. Vaisanen (2001) further states that in four-year learning institutions, the drop-out rate of traditional students is almost half of that of non-traditional students even where the university provides part-time programs for the non-traditional students. The authors state that factors such as satisfaction with the study programs, opportunities for academic and intellectual development, learning preferences, and the interaction between students and faculty play the largest role in influencing the persistence rate for non-traditional students. According to Szafran (2001), the process of adaptation for traditional and non-traditional students creates a solid foundation for the success of their study experiences and for them to be persistent. Pino and Smith (2004) proposed that non-traditional students should be helped to create meaningful psychological environments to enhance their experience and students which should help to reduce the drop-out rates significantly. Andrews (2001) supports this and argues that this will reduce the psychological distress which is the major reason for nontraditional students dropping out. Skopek and Schuhmann (2012) also argues that satisfaction with the academic institution has a positive correlation with the persistence of nontraditional students and thus by influencing the satisfaction rates, it is possible to influence the nontraditional students towards increased persistence. Donaldson and Townsend (2007), however, argues that in their study, they did not find differences in the satisfaction levels for traditional and nontraditional students which led to an argument placed by Miller (2007) who argued that though satisfaction may not be the only factor, other factors such as level of instruction and behavior of faculty and students which influence the social interaction and satisfaction greatly influence the persistence of nontraditional students.

Socializing dimension

Universities and colleges play an integral role in the socializing of students. The presence of traditional students in various campus activities creates an enabling environment for their socialization. For the non-traditional students who are only present in classroom activities hinders their socialization greatly. Miller (2007) also brings out extremely important questions on the socialization of nontraditional students as a result of possible neglect of their socio-emotional needs. The authors suggest that the academic community does not provide enough social interaction for the nontraditional students who mostly do not engage in extracurricular activities. In many occasions, they are also shunned away from by the traditional students since they do not have enough opportunities to physically meet and interact with them. The same goes with their interaction with members of the faculty. The non-traditional students have less face-to-face interaction with other students and faculty which creates a socialization problem. Donaldson and Townsend (2007) argue that the creation of cohort groups for nontraditional students can help greatly in creating an enabling learning environment and socialization.

Traditional students

For many years, scholars have argued that traditional students have greater advantages than nontraditional students as a result of greater socialization between their fellow students and members of faculty as well as having more time to spend on their learning and extracurricular activities. Anderson (2012) also argues that traditional students have the advantage of having a greater comfort level as a result of well-spaced timetables that allow them to take classes at a slower pace than that of nontraditional students. Traditional students also have the advantage of learning integral values and ethics that turn them into better adults for the future. They also develop moral principles and learn to respect and tolerate others as a result of the socialization available to them (University of Mary, 2012).

At the same time, traditional students have disadvantages. The first is that they are not able to undertake other activities such as work or conduct business. This is because they will have two contrasting full-time activities that cannot match. The second disadvantage is that they have too much free time on their hands which makes them engage in negative behavior such as binge drinking and regular usage of drugs.

Implications for social work

For social workers, nontraditional student programs provide them with the opportunity to practice while at the same time furthering their education and career. As a result of the work of social workers being demanding, nontraditional student programs will allow them to balance work life with their education. Since as nontraditional students, they will not be required to live on campus, the social workers will be able to share their time between academic and work activities. Therefore the social workers will be able to prioritize their activities to spare time for both demanding activities. The nontraditional student environment allows the social workers to improve their academic activities and get better pay. In a research conducted by Apollo Research Institute (2011), it was found that the non-traditional student system has a better return on the educational investment and this is bound to be true for social workers.


Non-traditional students face greater issues than traditional students, however, at the same time, they have more advantages than their traditional counterparts. The advantages include increased flexibility in classroom and learning activities which allows them to run their daily work or business activities concordant with their learning activities as well as increased remedial classes and exercises that allow them to spend more time in classroom studying. Traditional students, on the other hand, have the advantage of greater socializing with other students and faculty members bur are disadvantaged in the lack of flexibility and having too much free time which they cannot spend on other activities. With the proposed suggestions to changes in colleges and universities, the non-traditional aspect of learning will be able to eliminate all its disadvantages and become even better than the traditional learning environment.


Anderson, L. (2012). 4 Advantages of Traditional Classroom Learning in Nursing Education Retrieved November 26th, 2012, from

Andrews, B.H. (2001). Art and Ideas: Reaching Nontraditional Art Students. Art Education, 54(5), 33-36. doi: 10.2307/3193933

Apollo Research Institute. (2011). Traditional and Nontraditional Students: Is a Bachelor’s Degree Worth the Investment? Retrieved November 26th, 2012, from

Bell, S. (2012). Nontraditional Students Are the New Majority | From the Bell Tower Retrieved November 26th, 2012, from

Donaldson, J.F., & Townsend, B.K. (2007). Higher Education Journals’ Discourse about Adult Undergraduate Students. The Journal of Higher Education, 78(1), 27-50. doi: 10.2307/4122354

Miller, S. (2007). NONTRADITIONAL STUDENTS. The Mathematics Teacher, 101(1), 7. doi: 10.2307/20876019

Pino, N.W., & Smith, W.L. (2004). African-American Students, the Academic Ethic, and GPA. Journal of Black Studies, 35(1), 113-131. doi: 10.2307/4129293

Skopek, T.A., & Schuhmann, R.A. (2012). Traditional and Non-traditional Students in the Same Classroom? Additional Challenges of the Distance Education Environment Retrieved November 26th, 2012, from

Szafran, R.F. (2001). The Effect of Academic Load on Success for New College Students: Is Lighter Better? Research in Higher Education, 42(1), 27-50. doi: 10.2307/40196418

Tones, M., Fraser, J., Elder, R., & White, K.M. (2009). Supporting Mature-Aged Students from a Low Socioeconomic Background. Higher Education, 58(4), 505-529. doi: 10.2307/40269199

University of Mary. (2012). Traditional Student: The Benefits of a Faith-Based Education Retrieved November 26th, 2012, from

Vaisanen, J.R.P. (2001). Non-traditional students at university: a follow-up study of young and adult students’ orientations, satisfaction and learning outcomes. Paper presented at the European Conference on Educational Research, Lille.

Weaver, R.R., & Qi, J. (2005). Classroom Organization and Participation: College Students’ Perceptions. The Journal of Higher Education, 76(5), 570-601. doi: 10.2307/3838840

Zajacova, A., Lynch, S.M., & Espenshade, T.J. (2005). Self-Efficacy, Stress, and Academic Success in College. Research in Higher Education, 46(6), 677-706. doi: 10.2307/40197441

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