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The Student Body: Understanding the Definition of Traditional and Nontraditional Students

We are often struck by the fact that student leaders are unable to define the difference between traditional and nontraditional students.  The fact that student leaders are unable to define aspects of their constituency is an unfortunate occurrence that plagues organizations on campuses across the nation.   If student leaders do not know the variations of students that compose their student body, chances are many students are being left out of the conversation concerning event planning and student life.  When speaking to student leaders, many make the assumption that commuter students do not participate in student life or adult students have too many obligations to actively contribute to student led groups.  To believe that nontraditional students will not be active on campus is in the words of your philosophy 101 professor a fallacy.

So what is the difference between traditional and nontraditional students and why is it important?

We will tackle the latter question first.  A student leader that understands the student population will be able to make more informed decisions that impact their members.  In fact, a few active members that know how to meet the needs of traditional and nontraditional students can radically change their inactive campus culture into a thriving student life community filled with contributions from all segments of the student population.  The key to the transformation is of course knowing the needs of the student body and implementing programming that meets those needs.  So what are the needs of the student body?

To define the needs of the student body, it is best to define the terms traditional and nontraditional.

Traditional students are exactly what you might think.  A person not married and without children, either 24 years of age or younger, is typically considered a traditional student.  However, the married part does not automatically disqualify students from being traditional.  As seen on most campuses traditional students tend to be active participants in clubs because they do not have to devote as much time to children, work, and travel to and from campus.  However, the traditional students are now becoming more atypical on college campuses across America.

If your campus adheres to the national averages three-quarters of all students on your campus are considered nontraditional by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) (   To know the exact stats on your campus, simply ask the student life director or Dean of Students office for this information.

According to the NCES a nontraditional student is defined by meeting at least one of these seven characteristics:

  1. Does not enter college immediately after high school.
  2. Attends part time rather than full time.
  3. Works 35 hours or more a week.
  4. Is financially independent as defined by financial aid criteria.
  5. Have dependents other than a spouse.
  6. Is a single parent.
  7. Lacks a high school diploma or GED.

As you can see the difference between traditional and nontraditional is not simply age.  Many home and family life factors must be accounted for in the equation.  So how do you involve nontraditional students on campus?  Do you have any free parenting seminars or computer courses?  Do you work to involve commuter students?  Do you speak to anyone that is older and not a faculty or staff member?  If not, chances are you are not doing enough.

Knowing this information, what programming efforts can be made to increase awareness and involvement in student life activities for both traditional and non-traditional students?  Check back for more details.

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  • I guess student leaders has to focus largely enough on meeting the problems among nontraditional studs to being active in school first. By this, they might come up with solutions which could probably jive in to the traditional studs. Scheduling all the nontraditional studs for a consultation maybe a good start.

  • One-one-one consultation among the nontraditionals could be a good way to start Alice. If the things to be discussed during consultation are the ways on how they could possibly join school activities or improve their social being in school then this would really sound good. The problem that i just see is their time availability for school activities or joining clubs and organizations. Hard to figure out, isn’t it?

  • Well, if were a student leader my mind would really ache just to think of effective programs which can make the whole student body productive. One thing for sure, the school administration has to support every endeavor of the student council. If there are changes to be made for the welfare of the whole studentry then it has to be in union with the adminitration.

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