The Challenges of Being a Non-Traditional College Student

Some people believe that older adults have fewer challenges when pursuing higher education. Usually, this belief stems from the view of increased maturity and polished time-management skills that often comes with age. However, with work and family demands on top of classes and coursework, non-traditional-aged college students may be the ones who face an uphill battle when attending college for the first time or returning after a hiatus. 

92% of college students are under the age of 24. That leaves a very small number of students who are non-traditional. Being a non-traditional college student is difficult in many ways, but most notable is the inability to find people on campus who are similar in age. This problem can result in a lack of friends, which is isolating for these students when they sit in a class knowing that most of their peers are significantly younger than them. 

In some cases, a non-traditional college student may be closer in age to a professor, if not older. During an interview with a former EOU non-traditional student, “Anonymous” (age 36 at enrollment) said, “I knew that I was closer in age to my professors. It wasn’t a good feeling to know that I was closer [in age] to the professor than to the others [students] in my classes. When it came time to form groups for discussions or projects, I was the only one who didn’t have friends. I was left there, sitting by myself. When there was a need to get into groups, the professors had to assign me to a group. It was degrading. I felt like I did not belong. No one wanted to be friends with me because I was older than them by as much as 13 years.”  

Struggling to make friends is not the sole problem that non-traditional students encounter. Many older students work full-time jobs while also trying to obtain their degree. Former Portland State University student Alex (age 31 at enrollment) was a student who had to work full-time. Not only did working full-time reduce the amount of financial aid that Alex was awarded, which created financial hardships for her, but it also negatively impacted her grades when work took priority over school. “I worked 40 hours a week and took classes online. Sometimes, if I was really needed, I worked more. I would get home from work, sit down at my computer to focus on coursework, and oftentimes I would fall asleep at my desk, sleeping through deadlines for assignments.” Alex continued to say that she felt her professors were not sympathetic when she would explain the various reasons for missing deadlines. “More often than not, I was forced to drop a class because the professors were not willing to extend deadlines for me. I didn’t have the option to quit my job when I had a family relying on me. It felt impossible. How was I supposed to quit my job when I had a mortgage and bills to pay?” Most traditional-aged college students do not have a mortgage, rent, or any substantial bills due each month. 

Alex continued to explain that her income reduced her financial aid award. “Not only did I have kids to provide for and a mortgage to not fall behind on, but I also had a balance due each semester, as well as the expensive textbooks for classes that I usually had to drop. When you drop a class, you don’t get a refund on books you borrowed from the campus bookstore. By the beginning or middle of my second year, I knew that I couldn’t continue down this path.” Alex inevitably ended up dropping out. “Now all I have to show for the time and money spent is debt, but no degree.” Alex currently does not have any plans to go back to school to complete her bachelor’s degree. 

EOU graduate and Marine veteran Justin Lay, who majored in psychology, said, “One challenge as a returning student was to feel comfortable in larger group settings. Another challenge was my age. I started at EOU in 2018, when I was 35 years old, and I knew I was much older than a traditional student. I was unsure of where I would fit in, as far as meeting people and becoming friends with other students.” In contrast to Alex’s experience, Justin said, “The professors were understanding of issues expressed in advance, though [they] still expected work to be completed. Their patience and understanding, in advance of any situation, was instrumental in my success at EOU.” Fortunately, some professors do understand the school and life balance regarding non-traditional students, though this is not the case for all older students who work tirelessly to try and better themselves and their lives. 


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