The Top Challenges for Non-Traditional Students in Community College

Updated  September 13, 2017 |
The Top Challenges for Non-Traditional Students in Community College
If you are starting community college as an adult, there are certain challenges you can expect to face. Understanding and anticipating those challenges will help you to face them head-on with the greatest chance for success.

Community college offers a wonderful alternative to traditional four-year colleges and universities in many ways. Not only are community college degrees generally much more affordable, but the programs themselves are also very flexible. Many community colleges offer online classes which is particularly beneficial for non-traditional students, including parents and students who work a full-time job. Keep reading to learn more about non-traditional students in community college and tips for success.

What is a Non-Traditional Student?

College students come in all kinds of packages, but the majority of students fall into the same categories in terms of age and lifestyle. When it comes to community college versus four-year colleges and universities, however, there are some major differences among the student body. Community colleges tend to attract more “non-traditional” students, but what does that really mean? According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), there are seven characteristics that are commonly seen in students who qualify as “non-traditional” – here they are:

  • Didn’t go to college right after graduating high school
  • Attending college part-time instead of full-time
  • Working a full-time job while in school
  • Being financially independent of parents and family
  • Having children or other dependents
  • Being a single parent
  • Having a GED rather than a high school diploma

Of course, not all non-traditional students fit all of these criteria, but you really only need one to be grouped in this category. You may be surprised to learn, however, just how common non-traditional students are at the undergraduate level as a whole – it is close to 75% of all undergraduate students who fall into at least one or more of the categories listed above. Among those non-traditional students, the most common characteristic is part-time attendance followed by having a full-time job and then delayed enrollment (waiting after graduating college).   

Common Challenges Facing Non-Traditional Students

It is becoming increasingly more common for high school graduates to delay their college entry. Many students choose instead to get some work experience before they settle on a major and others need to work for a while in order to pay for a degree. No matter what it is that makes you a non-traditional student, there are certain challenges you are likely to face during your time at community college – here are some of the most common:

  • Becoming a first-generation student
  • Balancing financial obligations
  • Learning to use modern technology
  • Finding the time to work and study
  • Balancing family commitments
  • Having the self-confidence to be successful

Though it is certainly not always the case, many nontraditional students are also first-generation students – the first member of their family to attend college. While this is certainly an admirable achievement, it does come with challenges, particularly in relation to the application process. If you are the first in your family to apply to college, you may have to figure out the process entirely on your own. There may be resources provided by the school such as admissions counseling, but it’s up to you to know how to find these resources and to utilize them effectively. You’ll also have to figure out how you are going to balance the financial obligations of paying for tuition, fees, and books while also paying your rent, buying groceries, and paying utility bills.

Another challenge that many non-traditional students face – particularly those who wait a decade or more to attend college – is learning how to use modern technology. Many community college classes have an online component or may require students to do online research for papers and projects. If you don’t understand computer technology, or if you don’t have access to a computer at home, you may have trouble. Most schools have computer labs where you can access a computer, use the internet, and print things, but these resources are sometimes limited so you may not be able to rely on them completely. If you can’t afford a computer of your own, however, you may not have any other option.

Many non-traditional students attend classes part-time or at night because they work a full-time job. It is also often the case that these students rely on that full-time job to make their living. In cases like this, it can be difficult to balance work commitments with finding the time to not only attend classes but to do homework and to study. Even attending classes part-time can be a major commitment of time and you may also have trouble working your class schedule around your work schedule. This is one of the main reasons many non-traditional students prefer online classes – they offer greater flexibility and you don’t always have to travel to the school to attend class.

In addition to balancing your financial and work commitments, many nontraditional students also have families to take care of. If you have children or other dependents, you may not have a lot of time to spend in class or a lot of money to pay for tuition. If you are a single parent, this becomes even more challenging because you don’t have a spouse to share the burden with you. Many community colleges offer resources for non-traditional students including child care, but it doesn’t always come free and it may not be available in all schools.

The final challenge on the list is having the self-confidence to be successful. For many non-traditional students, attending college is a life-long dream and they have worked very hard to make it a reality. Unfortunately, it is also fairly common for non-traditional students to lack the kind of support system that many traditional students have. This makes it even more important to have confidence in yourself and in your abilities – that is the only way you are going to succeed.

Tips for Achieving Success in Community College

Every student’s experience in community college is shaped by his or her life experience up to that point. Many non-traditional students face certain challenges when they enter community college, but they also have the benefit of having some real-life experience. If you can put that experience to work for your benefit, you can be quite successful in community college. For example, if you are working a full-time job you have already learned some important skills like responsibility, discipline, and time management. These skills will help you to balance your work life, school life, and personal life. You may also already have a firm grip on your finances, knowing exactly how much you can afford to spend on tuition, fees, books, and other supplies while also meeting your financial obligations. Many non-traditional students are also caregivers or parents so they know how to juggle a dozen different things at the same time without letting any of the balls hit the ground. This is something it takes many traditional students four full years of college to learn.

Entering community college as a non-traditional student is by no means easy – there are many challenges you will find yourself facing on a daily basis. But you also bring some unique and important skills and experience to the table, so don’t forget that! By becoming aware of the top challenges facing non-traditional students in community college before you start classes, you can prepare yourself to face those challenges head-on which will improve your chances for success. Good luck!

Questions? Contact us on Twitter. @communitycollegereview


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