From Non-Traditional to Post-Traditional

February 20th 2018

The New Normal in Higher Education

With so much focus on post-secondary completion and success, colleges and university are working harder than ever to understand our students, create programs that tailor to their needs in the twenty-first century, and demonstrate how these students are achieving targeted outcomes. To this end, many institutions in higher education are focusing considerable attention on non-traditional students. But do we actually know who these students are? And is non-traditional really the term we should be using?

Non-Traditional: It’s all in the definition.

As our thinking of non-traditional students continues to evolve, who is included in this population may differ depending on who you talk to.

From non-traditional to post-traditional, an infographic displaying data related to how we define students in higher educationCross (1981) first coined the term “non-traditional student” to refer primarily to adult students who returned to school while also maintaining family and employment-related responsibilities. Since that time, the myriad existing definitions of who fits this population has exploded. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) outline seven characteristics of nontraditional students, including:

  1. delayed entry into college of at least one year following high school,
  2. having at least one dependent,
  3. being a single parent,
  4. full-time employment of at least 35 hours per week,
  5. financial independence (for the purposes of financial aid),
  6. attending school part-time, and
  7. no high school diploma (Choy, 2002).

However, depending on the organization or institution, there could be other populations included. Many institutions include non-degree, re-admit/re-entry, commuter, veteran/military, senior citizen, and online/distance education within the non-traditional classification. Others include transfer, first-generation, international, and undocumented students as well.

So, why does this matter?

The lack of a consistent definition matters for many reasons, but one in particular stands out: if we cannot define this population in a uniform way, how do we know who these students are? Ultimately, if we do not know who these students are, we have no way to identify them, support them, and measure whether or not they are successful. This is serious business; when we consider the number of students who could possibly fit this population, it is a sizeable portion of both our current and future college students.

In 2002, by the NCES definition, roughly 73% of college students in the United States were defined as non-traditional (Choy, 2002). By 2010, the U.S. department of Education estimated that nearly 85% of current undergraduate students were non-traditional to a certain degree. While the exact numbers may differ depending on who is counting and how, what is clear is that about five out of every six college students in the United States today likely fit the term “non-traditional.” But, if that is the case, is “non-traditional” the correct term to describe these students? The times are changing – will our vocabulary follow?

Post-Traditional: Rethinking our terminology

Given the breadth and volume of students included in this population, higher education has rightfully begun to rethink its present terminology. Rather than “non-traditional,” which paints this diverse and broad population of students as outliers, many have begun to shift to the term “post-traditional.” The term post-traditional, even in the connotation, frames a more forward-thinking and positive mental model of adult, parent, online, and working students who are part of our higher education system. It also frames the necessary shift in thinking and continued evolution of higher education institutions required to effectively serve these students.

Ultimately, a change in nomenclature is only the first step. There is still much clarity needed on who is included in this population. At the same time, we must recognize the uniqueness of the students who comprise this burgeoning definition. Grouping all post-traditional students into one bucket and assuming they have the same experiences, needs, and challenges is short-sighted. Only through studying these students more closely, together, through shared assessment and research, can we identify necessary steps and programs to help these students persist and be successful in college.

Interested in learning more about the challenges post-traditional students face, or what we know about their experiences in college? Check out our recent webinar on post-traditional students.

Choy, Susan. 2002. Findings from the Condition of Education 2002: Nontraditional Undergraduates. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.

Cross, K. Patricia. 1981. Adults as Learners: Increasing Participation and Facilitating Learning. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.