Nontraditional Paths to College

Content brought to you by Wayne County Community College District

hen Ryon Walker graduated from Detroit's Cass Technical High School in 2014, he knew he wanted to attend college. He dreams of becoming a high school math teacher and has a longer-term goal of earning a doctorate in education.

Instead of enrolling in college after graduation, however, he joined the U.S. Navy.

"I knew I wanted to go to college, but I wasn't sure what I wanted to major in," Walker says. "I also didn't want to (pay) out of pocket whatsoever. I had a few scholarships, but I want to earn a Ph.D., and none of them would take me that far."

Walker will celebrate his one-year anniversary in the Navy in December, but receiving a college degree is still part of his career plan. He'd like to take some online classes while on active duty and eventually become a full-time student attending courses on campus, but he's not quite sure what type of institution would be his best fit. He just knows he'd like to find a program with a small teacher-to-student ratio, a "dedicated, hardworking and understanding faculty" and a multicultural student body.


Whenever Walker enrolls, he'll join a growing cohort of students who aren't entering college directly from high school or who are returning after a brief or lengthy absence. Although the "nontraditional" moniker is often applied to this group of learners, their presence is becoming more common among the collegiate population.

The U.S. Department of Education defines the nontraditional student as a person who fits at least one of the following characteristics: he or she delayed attending college, attends college part time, works at least 35 hours a week, is financially independent, supports a family, is a single parent or didn't earn a formal high school degree.

Close to 40 percent of all college students are ages 25-34, according to National Center for Education Statistics data, while 32 percent are 35-plus.

"One of the fastest-growing segments of the college student population is the nontraditional student," says CharMaine Hines, associate vice chancellor at Wayne County Community College District

In response to this demographic change, colleges and universities are working to address a different set of needs from those of 18-year-olds enrolling a few months after completing 12th grade. Affordability and availability of specific academic programs are universal concerns, but older learners are often balancing more real-world responsibilities, such as full-time work or raising children, and can't easily attend in-person classes during daytime hours.

David Palmer, a 2011 Cass Tech grad who completed community college courses before enlisting in the U.S. Air Force, plans to attend college next year to begin a program in radiation therapy. He says he needs flexibility with a schedule that includes work and responsibilities in the Air National Guard.

"Online classes would be a plus, but so would in-person classes," Palmer says. "I think there would be pros and cons to both."

Flexibility is a common desire for many nontraditional students, says Hines, which is why online programs have grown in popularity.

Kevin Kucera, associate vice president for enrollment management at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, notes that "hybrid" courses that offer a few on-campus meetings with the rest of the instruction taking place online are also popular with nontraditional students. Hybrids offer the opportunity for students to be present on campus and have access to support services and other activities there. Even with their schedules, nontraditional students can benefit from lectures, social activities, workout facilities and other perks of traditional campus life.

Although some nontraditional students could feel out-of-place on a campus dominated by teenagers and young adults or worry that their academic skills have grown rusty after years away from the classroom, their real-world experience and maturity also can leave them better suited to tackle the academic demands of college.

"I have absolutely no fears whatsoever when it comes being considered a nontraditional student," Walker says. "The way the Navy operates, it pretty much prepared me for college. Most college students have a problem with time management, prioritizing and self-discipline. … The fears that a freshman would have going into that first semester, I faced those fears when I enlisted into the Navy."

7 Tips For Transitioning to College

For potential students looking to start college years after finishing high school, these tips can help make the transition easier.

Choose wisely

For-profit schools advertising quick and easy certificate programs to nontraditional students often have low graduation rates, and the credential it offers might ultimately be considered worthless by future employers. Credits are also less likely to transfer to other schools, leaving students with significant debt and minimal reward. Stay focused on accredited community colleges and four-year schools.

Consider a community college

Community colleges are often the first stop for a nontraditional student, as they offer lower-cost courses, evening and weekend class options, a faculty accustomed to teaching a diverse group of learners and assistance helping students adjust to college life for the first time or after a lengthy absence.

"Many students who graduate from high school aren't ready for the four-year university experience and prefer to work first," says CharMaine Hines, associate vice chancellor at Wayne County Community College District. "We help them get 'retooled' when they return to school to obtain additional education or earn credentials they don't currently have."

Consider credit transfers

Students who have already earned some college credits should meet with a counselor at the schools of their choice to see which would transfer toward a degree, says Kevin Kucera, associate vice president for enrollment management at Eastern Michigan University. Bring old transcripts to the meeting with the admissions counselor so he or she can research the courses and see if there are equivalencies at the current school.

Look for satellite campus options

Many of the state's four-year universities have locations in metro Detroit, and hybrid-style classes are often located at these centers.

Check for special services for veterans

Veterans' services offices have counselors trained to help students navigate the maze of veteran-specific financial-aid programs along with providing traditional academic and other support services.

Start slowly

Ryon Walker, a Navy veteran entering college, suggests potential students consider easing into their new lives as college students by starting with a lighter course load first. "See how one class fits into day-to-day life, and build from there," he says. "I know people who've been in the workforce a while can have a hard time getting adjusted."

Just stay motivated

It sounds simple, but many can find it difficult to return to school after years in the workforce.

"I know people in the navy and the civilian work force who say they had plans on going back to school but lost the eagerness to learn," Walker says. "I try to keep my eagerness by reading books-mainly historical pieces and African-American literature-learning new vocabulary words and incorporating some math. If you don't use it, you lose it."

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