The Rise of the Nontraditional Student, or Is It the ‘New Traditional Student’?

08/29/16   |  
Steve Fireng

In the monthly CEO Keys blog series, Keypath Education CEO Steve Fireng shares his thoughts and insights into the most prevalent topics in the higher education industry today.

Much has been written about the rise of nontraditional student. With the growth of online courses, boot camps and other alternative learning methods, has come the rise of the adult learner: the new traditional student. 

Growth for this group is now a bit higher than traditional students (age 18-22). The National Center for Education Statistics projects that from 2013 to 2024, the increase for students under age 25 to be 13 percent, compared with 14 percent for students age 25 and older. Today, adult students make up about 40 percent of the student body. But, even with this growth, many colleges and universities still have not adopted sound strategies to handle this demographic.   

Before we get into some strategies, let me give you the biggest fundamental difference between traditional and new traditional students. New traditional students see education as a retail transaction versus the emotional decision many traditional students make. This is not so much about creating an alma mater but treating education as an investment to improve career.

The adult learner is a more sophisticated buyer and will research the ROI in choosing his or her school. They will not tolerate inefficient processes and poor services from administration or faculty. While they won’t be the ones posting on social sites, they will call school leadership quickly if they feel they are not being well served. I spoke to one campus president that receives a call each week from new traditional students. Many times the president was the first call.

With that in mind, here are five thoughts you need to consider for new traditional students.

Career advancement. You must have market-driven services and programs. Career services are important to these students. In addition, you could also consider a corporate partnership program to market your school to professionals looking to further their careers.


These students have full-time jobs and family commitments. While online learning can help, it must be in an asynchronous environment.

Open credit-transfer policies.

These students may have received credit from other schools and often have experience on the job. The more open you are to accepting these credits, the more likely they are to consider your school.

Cost sensitivity.

As I mentioned, higher education is a retail transaction for adult students. They are price-sensitive, but more so concerned with ROI. Think outcomes versus price!

High-touch student services.

New traditional students have been out of school for a while. Helping them navigate time management is important, for example, as life can get in the way. Dedicated student success advisors can help build a relationship that provides vital support during the student journey while improving retention and student outcomes.

Most schools have started catering toward these new traditional students, but those that can build their marketing plans, student services and academic programs around the complexities will be the ones that can truly meet these students’ unique needs. Don’t just try to shoehorn this demographic into your current process for traditional students. Like I often say, only focus on the things in which you can truly invest. You can’t do it all. Good luck! 

For more information about Keypath or online program management services, please contact us here.