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Benefits of Non-Traditional Education

Our lives are shaped by our social norms, and education is no exception.

On the "normal" path, we finish our K-12 education around age 18, take the summer after graduation as a sort of buffer zone between childhood and college, and then dive into 4+ years of post-secondary education, with college being the primary focus of our energy for that whole time, our loving and supportive family coming for campus visits and sending us care packages to ease our weary bodies and minds.

That's not the reality for many people, for myriad reasons. My story: I opted to enlist in the Navy after high school, and my life had few parallels to the experiences of my civilian, college-enrolled friends (although I did spend some time in classrooms). I subsequently got married and started a family shortly thereafter. I planned on college, but it got pushed to the back burner, and then completely off the radar for years as "Life Happened". I entered the workforce and leveraged my experience to painstakingly claw my way up the ladder, until the Great Recession kicked me right in the teeth in 2009. I was laid off, and my decades of job experience were useless because I didn't have a degree. I could not compete for jobs because literally thousands of people were losing their jobs all around me, and their diplomas carried more weight than my experience in the ever-shrinking job market. I was simultaneously overqualified and under-credentialed!

That frustrating reality was the catalyst for my entrance into higher education. I needed that "piece of paper" to get in the door and start rebuilding my life, and I had to figure out how to do that while raising four children as a single mom with a very fixed income. I was lucky (in a way), because those "thousands of people" had triggered a shift in social expectations, and programs were springing up to facilitate "non-traditional students" starting or returning to school for re-training or complete career refreshes, so I at least had some road-map for getting started.

"Non-Traditional" is a very broad definition. I don't think we, as a society, have a consensus on what constitutes "non-traditional", but there are a LOT of us. According to information shared by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, "students who enroll in college full time immediately after high school no longer represent the majority of post-secondary college students." Also, graduation rates are not on par with our traditional counterparts. We've got significant competing demands for our time, we're often enrolled part time (work-school balance) and thus have less access to financial aid, and school may have taken a backseat to returning to employment when the economy started to recover, according to this article (full article here).

The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) published an article this week that touched on this topic. In a recent "hearing titled, “Empowering Students and Families to Make Informed Decisions on Higher Education,”... Brett Guthrie (R-KY) said that there is currently a mismatch between the information available on the efficacy of the federal student aid system and what students are encountering while enrolled and after graduation, as well as a lack of information on the growing number of nontraditional students." (link to full article here). In other words, we don't really know, objectively, what "non-traditional" looks like.

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) says:

"Exactly what constitutes a nontraditional student has been the source of much discussion in recent research. Most often age (especially being over the age of 24) has been the defining characteristic for this population.[10] Age acts as a surrogate variable that captures a large, heterogeneous population of adult students who often have family and work responsibilities as well as other life circumstances that can interfere with successful completion of educational objectives. Other variables typically used