4 key differences between non-traditional and traditional college students

November 6, 2023 By Kit Germeroth

Higher education primarily focuses on “traditional” students high school graduates and young adults. But what about the students who don’t fit this image?

Non-traditional students make up a significant percentage of learners, and we need to understand the different challenges they face to accurately and effectively meet their unique needs.

Let’s take a look at how non-traditional college students differ from traditional students.

Who are non-traditional students?

Before we dive into the differences between traditional and non-traditional higher education students and what that means for your organization, let’s look at what makes a student “non-traditional.”

No single trait identifies a student as being non-traditional — they’re a diverse group. The common thread is that they have different circumstances or are in a different life stage than most students.

For example, these students are typically over the age of 24. They didn’t take the usual route of college enrollment straight after high school. They might have dependents or be caregivers for family members.

Non-traditional students aren’t necessarily socially or economically disadvantaged. Some will be financially independent, possibly working full-time or even running their own businesses.

Other commitments often mean that they choose to study part-time rather than full-time to ensure their studies fit into their schedules.

How are non-traditional college students different?

Being in a different life stage to other students means that non-traditional students will have different needs and expectations. Here are some important examples.

Career path

Traditional students typically don’t have a firm career path. Some will have a strong interest in a particular career, but others use higher education to help them find their passions while they’re in an exploratory stage.

Non-traditional students aren’t usually in this position. Many will already have careers and are already successful in their fields. Instead, they’re using higher education to improve their prospects within their chosen career.

Campus life

Campus life is a massive part of the college experience for traditional students. They typically live on campus and have a strong interest in campus life, amenities, and events. For most traditional students, college is their first experience living independently, so living on campus helps them cope with this adjustment.

Non-traditional students will usually have been living independently for some time. Most will continue to live in their current (off-campus) accommodation, potentially with a spouse and/or dependents.

Non-traditional students need their campus to support their academic needs, with easy access to learning resources. That said, they may not be looking for the same social support as traditional students.

Financial status

Traditional students are rarely financially independent – most are relying on their families, loans, or both to cover their expenses. Some will choose part-time work alongside their studies to help with their finances, but this is likely to be low-skilled work with few responsibilities.

Non-traditional students will usually be financially independent, and many will continue to work full- or part-time during their studies. This will mean juggling both school and work responsibilities during their studies.


Graduation can often seem far away to traditional students, especially at the start of their programs. They are typically more interested in the college experience and their options for study than they are in graduating as quickly as possible. 

Non-traditional students usually have the opposite experience. They’re adding college on top of their existing life and commitments, so they are often eager to graduate quickly and use their new skills and credentials to jump into new opportunities.


How you can better serve non-traditional students

So, it’s clear that non-traditional students often carry more responsibilities than typical students and have different priorities. This can make college more challenging for them. Higher education institutions need to cater specifically to non-traditional students’ unique needs to ensure they have an excellent student experience. 

Here are a few ways you can ensure you meet those needs.

Be flexible with credentialing

Non-traditional students still need to be held to high standards, but higher education institutions can be flexible in how they allow these students to show that they meet those standards.

Consider how non-traditional students can transfer credits from other educational experiences. For example, can they gain credit for education they received while in the military or from other educational programs?

Offering short-term programs focused on essential workplace skills is also a great approach. Not all non-traditional students will be looking for a full degree. Instead, focus courses on meeting their learning and accreditation needs.

It’s also essential to be really clear about the options available to non-traditional students. Be proactive in reaching out to this group to give them the best chance of success.

Offer different scheduling and delivery options

Universities usually assume that students can be highly flexible in their schedules. For traditional students, this works well – we can reasonably expect that college is their primary responsibility. 

The same is not true of non-traditional students, who might be tied to childcare obligations, workplace expectations, and other important commitments. They don’t always have the flexibility to adapt to changing class times or narrow office hours.

Where possible, offer flexible schedules for classes, office hours, and even exams. For example, you might provide two exam time slots, one during the day and the other in the evening.

Where this is not possible, consider alternatives such as online learning and other ways to communicate with teaching staff.

When looking for alternatives, always prioritize the quality of the student experience. Non-traditional students deserve the same high-quality teaching and learning as traditional ones.

Market directly to non-traditional students

Non-traditional students may not feel as welcome in higher education as recent high school graduates. Reaching out to them specifically can help overcome this impression.

Emphasize the measures you’ve implemented to improve the experience for non-traditional students. Focus on things that matter most to them, like employment opportunities post-graduation, rather than those that don’t, like campus nightlife.

Offer dedicated support

Non-traditional students face challenges that their traditional peers don’t. This can leave them feeling alone and unsupported. Dedicated support can make a dramatic difference in their experience of higher education.

Have a named point of contact to help with common issues non-traditional students face. Provide opportunities for these students to meet one another and offer peer support. And don’t forget to include them in your requests for student feedback. Making sure that their voices are heard will go a long way toward meeting their needs.

Choose a higher education LMS that supports non-traditional learning

One of the most powerful ways to improve the student experience for non-traditional students is by using a learning management system (LMS) that’s flexible enough to meet their needs. 

Moodle for Higher Education is a highly customizable and flexible LMS that is easy to tailor to the unique needs of non-traditional and non-degree students. Moodle for Higher Education also supports multi-tenancy, which means you can create unique learning environments for different programs, like continuing education or microcredentials. 

Learn more about how you can leverage Moodle to cultivate an exceptional learning experience for every type of student at your organization.

Ready to get started?

Get in touch with our team to learn how Moodle can help you better support your non-traditional students.