Debunking the myth of the ‘traditional’ student

Many people think of the typical college student as a recent high school graduate, living on campus, supported by their parents, but a recent NPR segment says “that narrative…is way off.” According to Alexandria Walton Radford, director of postsecondary education research at RTI International, nearly 75 percent of today’s undergraduates have at least one characteristic associated with a “nontraditional” student, and about one-third of students have two or three such attributes.

For instance, one in four students now take a year off between high school and college, one in five is at least 30 years old, and half are financially independent from their parents. One quarter of students are caring for a child, and nearly half attend school part-time at some point.

Noting that “this isn’t a new phenomenon,” Radford says colleges need to acknowledge that the nontraditional student has become traditional and to look at students’ specific needs. Schools with a large population of working learners, for example, may want to tailor the timing of courses and support services, while schools serving predominantly commuter students may benefit from expanding parking. In addition, “maybe we need a better term than ‘non-traditional’, considering those qualities are now the new normal,” adds NPR reporter Elissa Nadworny.

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