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Becoming a Nontraditional Student

Becoming a Nontraditional StudentNeisha, a divorced mom who lives with her 5-year-old son and her new boyfriend, came into my office and flopped into a chair. “So,” she says. “Today I waved goodbye to my son as he rode away on the school bus to start kindergarten. Then I waved goodbye to my boyfriend who was off to a new job he is excited about. Then I realized I was the only one not going anywhere or doing anything that was getting me closer to my goals. I just don’t know where to start.”

Neisha doesn’t realize it, but she has already started. She came to my office to talk about the goals she had abandoned with the birth of her son and how to reclaim that part of herself. She’d done an excellent job getting him ready for his next big milestone in life. Now she’s ready to talk about hers.

Neisha dropped out of college her freshman year when she found out she was pregnant. The baby-daddy made it clear he didn’t want the baby so she decided she didn’t want him. Since then, she has been waitressing and using public assistance to make ends meet. She’s very lucky. She and her older sister, who is also a single parent, have been able to switch off child care so each could work part-time. But as much as she likes her job, she wants more for herself and her son. Now she’s wondering if going back to school is a good idea.

It is. The difference in earning power between those who do and don’t have an education is still significant. The average yearly income for people who dropped out of high school is $18,734. Those with a high school diploma average $27, 915. Those with a college degree average $51,206. Whether you finish out high school with a GED or go for a college degree, it will pay off big as long as you find ways not to encumber yourself with a huge debt while you are doing it.

One of my all-time favorite clients was a woman in her late 40s who decided it was time to go for the career she always wanted. She graduated at 52 and had a wonderful 15 year career as a much-beloved teacher. Whether you are in your early 20s or older, you too can go for your dreams. If, like Neisha, you gave up school for parenting, or for a relationship, or to care for an aging parent or for some other reason, it’s not too late to go back.

“Nontraditional” is the polite term schools are giving people who are not the same age as their usual students. With over half of the students enrolled in college these days being over 25, they may need to change that term in the near future. In the meantime, embrace it. I’ve found that older students who are motivated, mature and focused on their goals are always a welcome and energizing presence when they attend the college classes I teach.

Below are some tips for going back to school and succeeding:

  • First, look at community colleges. Many offer GED classes as well as college classes. Many have remedial programs to help people who need extra preparation to get ready for college-level work. Many schedule classes in the evenings and weekends to accommodate working people and parents. Some even have child care available on campus.
  • Community colleges cost less. They tend to be less expensive than four-year colleges and universities. Think about whether a two-year degree is enough education for you to reach your goals. If you do need a four-year degree (or more), take the first two years at the less expensive community college and then transfer for the rest.
  • Consider nontraditional programs at four-year colleges. Many now have special programs that cater to working adults. Often they are a combination of online and on-campus classes. Many count prior work experience toward your degree.
  • Start small. If it’s been years since you’ve been in school, you are probably out of practice. Start with one or two classes to get yourself back into the rhythm of being a student. You may find that getting the reading and assignments done takes more time than you bargained for. It’s easier to readjust your life around one or two classes than around a full class load.
  • Be realistic about yourself. Classes that meet only every other weekend can be a wonderful fit for a working parent. However, you will be successful only if you have the self-discipline to schedule regular study time in between meetings. It simply won’t work if you try to cram two weeks of assignments into the night before your classes meet.If you know you just aren’t the type to do work on a daily basis, you will do better to take classes that meet a couple of evenings a week to keep yourself actively involved.
  • Give yourself time. It may well take you longer than if you had gone to school when you were younger. One of my clients finished her associates degree after eight years of part-time school. Yes, it would have taken only two years if she had been able to go full time. But as the working mother of three, all she could handle was one or two classes a semester.She got her degree the same weekend that her oldest child graduated from high school. It was a proud weekend for the whole family. Yes, it took her eight years. But those same eight years would have gone by anyway. By taking her time, she was able to be the parent she wanted to be and also get good grades and earn that degree. Now she is able to go for the supervisory position at the hospital where she works.
  • Be a positive role model for your children. Make the hour or two after dinner “homework time.” Older kids can do their homework while you do yours. Younger kids can color or do a puzzle or make a picture for grandma. When kids see their parents taking their homework regularly and seriously, they get the message that education is important.
  • Most important – enjoy it! Even if you weren’t crazy about school when you were younger, you may find that you feel differently about it now that it’s a choice. Most of your classes will be immediately relevant to your goals. Even the classes you don’t 100 percent love will help you make progress toward a better life for you and your family. With a positive attitude and a genuine desire to learn, you can make it a meaningful and rewarding experience.

It’s never too late to be a student. Do your “homework” and start looking at the websites of schools near you. Visit the campuses. Look at bulletin boards and talk with the admissions and financial aid offices. By next semester, you could join the legion of adults who get back to school and oh the road to a new or enhanced career.

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Becoming a Nontraditional Student

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Marie Hartwell-WalkerDr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.

Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2018). Becoming a Nontraditional Student. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 5, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.