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Nontraditional Students in 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.

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 an 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.

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-generation student

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.

Going to college can be tough even for traditional students who have already spent the majority of their lives in school. Whether [a student] chooses 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 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 [a nontraditional student] decides to pursue a bachelor's degree, many schools have articulation agreements with nearby four-year institutions to make the transfer process more seamless.

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 [a nontraditional student] might face:

* 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 their 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 their life with no guarantee of success.

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