A Nontraditional Student’s Guide to Community College

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A Nontraditional Student’s Guide to Community College
Going to college is hard work but it’s even more challenging for nontraditional students who are working or raising a family at the same time. If you’re considering community college to improve your life or further your career, here’s everything you need to know.

In the movies, the typical college classroom is full of young, bright-eyed students who have just made the move from high school. They’re excited about being on their own for the first time and ready to take on the world. In reality, every college classroom looks different – especially community college classrooms. Community college students come from all walks of life, including those who went to work right out of high school and those working full-time jobs or raising a family.

Community college is where many nontraditional students go to obtain and education. The flexibility and affordability of community college compared to traditional four-year schools is a major draw, but there are still plenty of challenges to overcome. Read on to learn everything you need to know about succeeding in community college as a nontraditional student.

What is a Nontraditional Student?

When you think of the average college student, you probably picture someone 18 to 22 years old balancing their time between classes, the dorm room, and the student center.

Picture this instead: a 38-year-old single mother who works days at a restaurant, attending classes at night and on her days off. Or a military veteran attending classes online with the hopes of starting a new career after completing his service. The truth is that 38% of undergrads are older than 25. Over 25% are parents and 58% are working while attending classes.

Students like these are considered “nontraditional” but what exactly does that mean? Nontraditional students typically meet one or more of the following 7 criteria:

  • They are over the age of 24
  • They have a GED
  • They work at least part-time
  • They have a child
  • They are a single parent
  • They waited at least 1 year to start college
  • They are a first-general student (FGS)

Students who meet just one of these criteria are considered nontraditional but many of these traits are combined. For example, many nontraditional students who have a child are also single parents or work at least part-time to support themselves and their family. The most common story is one of people who had children at a young age, worked as needed to support them, but now want to work toward a career that will better support themselves and their family.

College populations have changed significantly over the past few decades and, unfortunately, enrollment is trending downward. According to some sources, however, the percentage of nontraditional students is expected to grow more quickly than traditional students. The number of nontraditional students in colleges hit 8.9 million in 2010 and has risen another 35% to exceed 12 million. Of those, about 14% are enrolled in community college and, by 2026, it is anticipated that 13.3 million nontraditional students will be pursuing a college education.

Benefits of Community College for Nontraditional Students

Going to college can be tough even for traditional students who have already spent the majority of their lives in school. Whether you choose community college or a four-year institution, it’s a major commitment of time and effort but the payoff is well worth it.

Community college has its benefits over traditional four-year universities. In addition to being generally more affordable, many community colleges offer flexible class schedules that enable students to take classes at night or online. If you decide that you want to pursue a bachelor’s degree, many schools have articulation agreements with nearby four-year institutions to make the transfer process more seamless.

But what benefits does a community college education offer to nontraditional students in particular? Here are a few:

  • Lower tuition costs make it more affordable to attend school while supporting a family.
  • Flexibility scheduling allows students to work part-time, or even full-time, while in school.
  • Community colleges are often closer in proximity, making commuting an option instead of living on-campus in dorms.
  • Many community colleges offer financial aid specifically for nontraditional students.
  • Some schools offer additional benefits like free or discounted childcare.
  • Partnerships with four-year institutions make it easier to transfer to a four-year program.

According to the 2017 National Student Satisfaction and Priorities Report, the majority of nontraditional students are satisfied with their college experience. About 67% of adult learners and 74% of online learners rated their level of satisfaction as “satisfied” or “very satisfied” compared to 53% of traditional students. That doesn’t mean, however, that it will always be an easy road. Nontraditional students face unique challenges that we’ll cover in the next section.

What Challenges Do They Face?

Though many students go to college right out of high school, rising tuition costs have many reconsidering that decision. More students are waiting a year or more after graduating high school before they start college, if they start it at all. Taking what some refer to as a “gap year” can give students time to save money and gain valuable work experience before settling on a major and committing to a degree program.

College can be a challenging time for everyone. Between the cost of tuition and housing, college is expensive. Many students also struggle to balance their course load while maintaining a good GPA. Being independent for the first time can also be a challenge.

Nontraditional students face some additional challenges in community college (and at four-year universities). This is particularly true for students who have been in the “real world” for a number of years. Here are some of the challenges you might face as a non-traditional student:

  • Adjusting to academic life after spending an extended period of time working and/or supporting a family – being older than the average student.
  • Balancing existing financial obligations with the added cost of tuition and fees.
  • Finding the time to attend class and study while working and/or supporting your family.
  • Learning how to use modern technology and adjusting to a change in lifestyle.
  • Balancing family commitments with homework and other course requirements.
  • Being a first-generation college student or having a limited support system.
  • Having the confidence to make a significant change in your life with no guarantees of success.

Whether you’re a nontraditional student or straight out of high school, you’ll need some help making the adjustment to community college life. Take advantage of the resources your school has to offer including academic advisors and financial aid counselors who can help you with your journey.

Best Schools and Programs for Nontraditional Students

Though nontraditional students are thriving in college, your success depends on numerous factors. It’s important to do your research and choose a program that will fit your lifestyle and help you achieve your goals. Research the community colleges in your area and have a sit-down with an admissions counselor at each one so you can ask questions to determine which school is the best fit.

Here are some of the top community colleges according to TheBestSchools.org which might be a good fit for nontraditional students:

  • Walla Walla Community College – A multi-campus community college located in southeastern Washington, this school enrolls over 13,000 students each year and most academic courses 100 level or higher are transferrable to 4-year institutions. The school offers an e-learning program that enables students to earn an associate degree online or through a combination of online and campus courses.
  • Santa Barbara City College – This Santa Barbara-based community college offers over 50 certificate programs and 80 degrees with an average class size of just 28. More than 50% of full-time students transfer to four-year schools and the college is known for serving traditionally underserved students.
  • Lake Area Technical Institute – Located in Watertown, South Dakota, this school offers low tuition rates and a 99% graduate placement rate. LATI has program-to-program articulation agreements with South Dakota State University which enables graduates from specific programs to transfer into a bachelor’s degree program.
  • Valencia College – This school is located in Orlando, Florida but covers a broad region of mid-Florida with multiple campuses. It offers 30 transfer plans as well as 60 non-degree technical certificate programs to serve a very diverse student population. They rank first among U.S. two-year colleges for total associate degrees awarded.
  • Saint Paul College – A community and technical college located in St. Paul, Minnesota, this school offers traditional, online, and hybrid classes. The school focuses on advanced technology to enhance their curriculum and offers free tutoring for students.
  • Mayland Community College – Located in Spruce Pine, North Carolina, this school has partnerships with multiple area colleges and universities to provide numerous transfer opportunities to students. They offer programs in a wide variety of fields including arts and sciences, business, engineering, health sciences, and applied technology.
  • Southeast Community College – With three campuses and 20 learning centers spanning a 15-county district, Southeast Community College Lincoln (SCC-Lincoln) is a community college network. They offer more than 50 programs of study including 12 online programs and provides seamless transition for students into four-year schools.
  • CUNY Kingsborough Community College – Located in Brooklyn, New York, this school offers a wide range of associate degree programs in the liberal arts and in career education. Tuition is free for residents 60 and older under the My Turn program and the school is ranked in the upper half of the top 100 community colleges for awarding associate degrees to minorities.
  • Colorado Mountain College – A network of eleven community college campuses serving nine counties in north-central Colorado, CMC provides a variety of professional training, certificates, and degrees. They also offer courses related to the area’s ski tourism industry such as courses in ski business, ski lift maintenance, outdoor education, and sustainability.

In addition to these community colleges, there are many online-only schools which could be a good fit for nontraditional students. According to the SR Education Group, 2019’s top five online community colleges were Northwest Iowa Community College, Bismarck State College, Foothill College, Wake Technical Community College, and Moraine Park Technical College.

The Top 10 Tips for Success in Community College

Going back to school as a nontraditional student can be intimidating and even overwhelming at times. The best thing you can do is take your time to choose the right school and the right degree. Don’t rush your decision and end up falling behind in class because you didn’t plan things properly. You should expect to spend at least two years in school to obtain an associate degree, more if you’re only going to school part-time. If you want to go on to get a bachelor’s it will be closer to 4 years, maybe more.

Everyone learns differently and your situation is completely unique. The key to success in community college is to understand yourself and your learning style. Take advantage of the resources your school has to offer and never be afraid of asking for help.

Here are some additional tips for success as a nontraditional student in community college:

  1. Take advantage of remedial courses and freshman seminars. If you’ve been out of school for a while, you may need time to adjust. Remedial courses will help you get up to speed in key subjects while freshman seminars will help you adjust to community college itself.
  2. Work closely with your academic advisor. Before you schedule classes, talk to your academic advisor about your final goal. If you plan to obtain a bachelor’s degree, think about what degree you want and find out if any of the schools in your area have agreements with nearby four-year schools. Your academic advisor will also help you arrange your class schedule to help you finish your degree as quickly as possible while working around your work schedule.
  3. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it. Community colleges offer a wide range of support services for all of their students, so don’t be afraid to take advantage of them! If you have a specific concern, contact the student help center or the admissions office to find out what resources are available. You may also be able to ask your academic advisor or your professors.
  4. Start early with good study habits. If you’re working or taking care of your family while in school, you’ll have to find a way to balance your classwork and other work. Try to build good study habits early on and set aside time for classwork so you don’t fall behind.
  5. Consider all of your options for financial aid. Many community colleges offer scholarships specifically for nontraditional students, so find out if you qualify for any of them. You may also be eligible for federal financial aid or need-based aid. Don’t stop your search there, however – look for other scholarships from non-profits and other organizations that might want to support nontraditional students.
  6. Don’t assume that online courses are the best option. Online classes give you the flexibility to study when and where you can, but they aren’t always the best option. If you are good at teaching yourself, it might work, but you may feel more stimulated in a real classroom environment. You’re also more likely to receive individualized help and attention in a physical classroom environment.
  7. Finish your degree as quickly as you can. Many college students want to extend their college experience as long as possible, but more time means more money. The sooner you finish your degree, the sooner you’ll be able to get a better job and get back to earning money and supporting your family. Don’t overextend yourself but plan your course load so you can finish your degree in a reasonable amount of time.
  8. Be open and honest with your family. Going to community college is a great way to improve your opportunities in life, but it may put a strain on your family for a while. Be sure to talk to your family before you start so everyone is on board. You may need to rely on your family to pick up the slack when you need extra time to study.
  9. Don’t try to do it all at once. When it comes to big projects and studying for major exams, you’ll do better breaking the work up into smaller pieces instead of trying to cram it all in at once. Block off some time in your schedule each day to devote to classwork. If you don’t have any looming deadlines, look ahead in the syllabus and see if there’s something you can get a head-start on, so you take full advantage of your time.
  10. Be mindful of deadlines. You won’t know how much you can handle until you get started with community college, so pay attention to drop deadlines and book return policies in case you need to remove a class from your schedule. You should also closely study the syllabus when you start a new class and keep important dates in mind so you don’t find yourself scrambling to finish a paper while also managing a big project at work.

In addition to taking advantage of resources the school has to offer, you should also find ways to connect with other students – especially nontraditional students. You may find that you can learn from other nontraditional students like yourself and you can support each other as you navigate the realm of higher education.


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