12 Tips for Nontraditional Students to Make the Most of Their Education
Nontraditional students are a major part of the postsecondary educational world. To understand just how big of an impact they have on enrollment, one must first possess a clear understanding of what nontraditional students are.
The National Center for Education Statistics applies the “nontraditional students” label to anyone meeting one of seven criteria — delayed enrollment into postsecondary education; part-time college attendance; full-time employed; is financially independent for financial aid purposes; has dependents other than a spouse; is a single parent; or does not have a high school diploma.
A good benchmark for determining one’s nontraditional standing at a glance is age. Most students over the age of 25 will be considered nontraditional, and according to Stamats, that factor applies to more than 47 percent of students currently enrolled in colleges and universities in the U.S.
So with nontraditional students here to stay, we find it’s only wise to offer some tips for how this group can get the most out of their education. Let’s get started!
1. Play to your strengths.
Nontraditional students have the wisdom of the world. They have stepped away from the educational world and experienced life. They have worked jobs they’re good at; jobs they’re not so good at; held meaningful relationships; and been a source of support for someone else.
“Nontrads,” as they are often called for short, have lived life, and that experience informs an education like no other. If you are about to head back to school after a long layoff, be mindful of the “education” you received in between your last class and the next.
2. Learn your campus resources.
Campus resources are there for the betterment of the student. They allow one to get his or her bearings and have a source of support when educational demands grow beyond the point of “ordinary.”
We recommend to every nontrad that they swing by the administrative building on campus prior to day one and learn about all the resources that are available. This will accomplish two things: 1) it will make said nontrad feel better equipped for the challenges ahead; and 2) it will help alleviate obstacles as they come to pass.
Common campus resources include libraries, bookstores, career centers, advisors, fitness centers, and more.
3. Fill technology gaps.
Technology is moving at a lightning speed, and those growing into it are better equipped to understand its ebbs and flows than anyone who grew up talking to their significant others on wall-hanging kitchen phones with six-foot extension cords as siblings passed by to raid the refrigerator and make fun.
If you’re of a generation that grew up close to the Internet, you may have an easier time, but there are still some rapid post-social media advancements that you may be entirely unfamiliar with, so don’t assume you’ve got everything down pat.
Be respectful of your younger classmates. Observe what they are using, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. They are often smarter than the instructor when it comes to sites, apps, and hardware. Add them to your list of campus resources.
4. Double down on what makes you ‘annoying.’
Unfortunately, nontraditional students can have a reputation for being annoying. Just ask any younger student, and they will tell you nontrads simply love to crow about their infinite wisdom and life experience while asking stupid questions designed to extend the length of a class period by an unnecessary amount of time.
The reality is that there is a divide between limited life experience and advanced experience. As a nontrad, you have more life experience, and that will naturally make you more eager to learn and to apply knowledge in a practical way.
No, you aren’t going to fear asking a question if you don’t understand something. Yes, you will try to connect what you’re learning to your overall life experience. That’s called being a good student. If the younger generations find that annoying, tough. Keep being annoying. Every chance you get.
5. Embrace online courses.
Online courses can alleviate some of the issues that nontraditional students may run in to. For starters, they will get a nontrad acclimated to technology and fluent in it in no time. Secondly, they allow all students to work at a more independent pace.
Finally, online courses may be cheaper, more flexible in acceptance, and allow greater ability to stay in control of one’s own time management.
6. Do your homework before day one (and after, obviously).
As a nontraditional student unfamiliar with certain subjects — or revisiting subjects you haven’t studied in-depth for ages — you don’t want to go in cold. You want to have at least some background understanding to shorten the learning curve.
We recommend taking an inventory of your strengths and weaknesses, your familiarities and your obstacles, prior to day one. That means not only doing your homework on the class, but creating the “assignments.” You essentially need to be teacher and student.
Do that, and when the time comes, you will have the right questions and the right game plan.
7. Set realistic goals.
Too often nontraditional students will go into a class thinking they are going to ace it in every aspect. Every assignment will be correct and submitted to the instructor on time. Every concept will be made clear. Every grade will be an A, and it won’t get in the way of the day-to-day duties of being a family man/woman, loving spouse, and hard-nosed career professional.
Continuing your education is a sacrifice of sorts. Yes, it has a tremendous upside to it, leading to rewards that far outweigh the initial discomfort of it all. But at the end of the day, you are going to run into some challenges, and those challenges will require you to set realistic goals at the appointed time. Will you be ready?
8. Maximize time management.
Seriously, how are you going to take a full-time class load, work 40 or more hours per week, and be there with your family?
We recommend that most nontraditional students forgo the temptation to take heavy class loads and instead focus on one or two classes at a time. Doing so enables one to find time for everything and everyone they need to be focusing on without falling behind or being derelict in one’s duties.
When it comes to effective time management, we recommend trying either at the beginning or the ending of each week.
Just like you need to budget your time, you also need to budget your money. Scholarship opportunities — while out there — tend to be in greater abundance for traditional students.
That means you, as a nontrad, are usually dependent on student loans and perhaps a tuition reimbursement program (if your employer has one).
Financial pressures can create all types of difficult scenarios. It can create tension between you and your loved ones. It can weigh on your brain and get in the way of classwork. It can cause you to have to work longer hours, thus cutting into class time.
By planning for financial difficulties ahead of time, you can focus more on your educational objectives and have a plan in place if things do go awry.
10. Network like you’ve never networked before.
Nontraditional students usually come back to school from a place of complacency. Enrolling in a class or two is the first step away from that complacency, but it does not automatically sharpen one’s networking skills.
Chances are networking has changed a lot since you last did it with any regularity. Today it’s not just about job fairs; it’s about LinkedIn, SnapChat, Facebook, and other forms of social media. In short, it’s about finding the balance between both real-world and online connections.
Going back to college will offer you a chance to make the most of your networking because you already understand the importance of connecting with others in every form. You’ve seen what it can do for a career — either yours or others around you — and so you don’t take important relationships for granted.
Nontraditional students can use their insight to find and connect with movers, shakers, and decision makers, and that can pay big dividends long after a course is completed.
11. Connect with your professor.
Nontraditional students often find they have more in common with their instructors than they do their classmates. That’s because both nontrad and instructor are coming to their roles through a lens of life experience.
Try to reach out to your professor. Be respectful of his or her time, but let them know you’re there and do not hesitate to bring any comments or questions to them provided those comments/questions lead to a greater understanding of the subject as a whole.
On day one, learn those office hours and try to make time once a month — more if needed — to drop by and say a few words to them.
12. Look for ways your schooling can influence your work and vice versa.
You neither work nor learn in a vacuum. Nontraditional students usually go back to school to get additional training for their job. After all, more and more employers will not cover education reimbursement expenses unless there is an upside for them.
That upside takes the form of ensuring relevancy of subject matter to the employee/student’s existing job. Therefore, as a nontrad, try to make sure that you are making those highly important connections between your job and your class time.
Your relevant work experience will help inform coursework, and your class time/homework/assessments will sharpen the skills you are using every day at your job.
Nontraditional students may not have the easiest road to travel in some ways, but they are able to benefit from their existing knowledge and life experiences in a way that evens the playing field — and even sets them ahead — of most of their traditional counterparts. If you’re a nontraditional student, what are some of your greatest concerns about your status, and what are some of the most helpful tips you’ve ever received for tackling a class head on. Sound off in the comments section below.