College Quarterly
Spring 2006 - Volume 9 Number 2

Over the Hill? A Nontraditional Undergraduate Student’s Uphill Battle

by Nelson Stydinger and Lauren Dundes


As the number of older students in the classroom continues to increase, traditional institutions must make changes to integrate these learners into the student body by acknowledging how their needs differ from those of traditional undergraduates. This commentary emphasizes the need for institutions and faculty to make efforts to understand and accommodate the real-world experiences and knowledge older students possess, by awarding credit where appropriate, and adapting degree programs which incorporate prior knowledge and educational goals.


This evaluation of undergraduate education for nontraditional students is based on the observations of the lead author, a 56-year-old undergraduate student seeking a bachelor’s degree at a private four-year liberal arts institution in the United States. Although the student had limited part-time student status over twenty years ago, this is his first experience as a full-time undergraduate student. The purpose of this commentary is to address the present real-life experiences of the student in comparison with the claims of recent literature on the nontraditional student.


The nontraditional student has been the subject of much research over the past two decades. The accepted definition of a nontraditional student appears to be established as an individual over 25 years old with additional qualifiers including employment status, marital status, dependents, and part-time or full-time college attendance. Regardless of these additional qualifiers, it is the age status that most clearly defines a nontraditional student. The age of the nontraditional student becomes more important as age increases; the older adult students are at times of different generations than traditional students. These intergenerational disparities create a unique environment among students in the classroom as well as differences between older students and professors. One study (Scala, 1996) addresses the participation barriers and experiences of adult students over 60, but studies on full-time students between 35 and 60, seeking their first degree, are scarce. For the purpose of this commentary, the terms “older student,” “adult student,” and “nontraditional student” refer to a student over 56 years old, enrolled full-time in a four-year institution, seeking an initial undergraduate degree.


Students who do not fit into the mold of the traditional resident student are labeled by one of a number of terms to identify their group. Whether it is transfer, reentry, nontraditional, adult, commuter, or any other phrase, this labeling sets them apart as auxiliary to the main student body. These terms are established by the institution and are not necessarily the terms the students would apply to themselves. Sissel, Hansman, and Kasworm (2001) claim the labels assigned to adult students, such as nontraditional or commuter, reflect the marginalization of these students. The attitudes of the educators are influenced by the marginal status of the adult students who are expected to fit into the system designed for the traditional full-time student (19-20). In institutions with very large student bodies, this labeling may place a particular student in a very large group, while in smaller institutions, such labeling identifies the student as part of a distinct minority. Some institutions use a peer mentor system to integrate students into college life. Peer mentor groups among nontraditional students often result in complete mismatches between the student and the mentor, particularly with students over age 35. The lumping together of commuter students, regardless of age can be awkward when differences in perspective are more prominent than shared experiences.

Flint (2001) claims the needs of nontraditional students are different from traditional 18-year-old students because of changes brought about by life experience. These differences require that the educational institution provide support services that recognize the work-related learning and experience of the nontraditional student. Even when services or programs for adult students exist, these functions are normally add-ons, with little support from the main power structure of the institution (Sissel, Hansman, and Kasworm, 2001). Adult students need advice and support in equal measure to the traditional student. Without such support or “community” that takes into account the nontraditional students’ disparate needs, they are more likely to leave the institution no matter how excellent the academic program.

Credit for Experience

Admission of nontraditional students at most institutions is accomplished using traditional application and processing procedures. There is no effort to understand the needs and desires of the older student which invariably will be different from the traditional student. Without intimate knowledge and understanding of the experiences and goals of the nontraditional student, the institution relegates the new student to a demeaning, inferior position. Flint (2001) explains that adult experiences are diverse and the goals nontraditional students set for themselves will be based on their background. Their experiences must be addressed during an assessment to identify acquired knowledge which is credible. Requiring courses that cover information that already know only impedes their educational experience. Many institutions evaluate only classroom experiences of the nontraditional student, limiting the awarding of credit to training and education received in a classroom setting. No credit is granted for the experience gained through job performance once the training is completed. The applied knowledge of the student is often ignored; the knowledge and skills acquired in the real world are discarded. Ross-Gordon (2003) submits that one of the recommended classroom practices includes recognizing the learning that adult students have acquired in the larger world, which could be accomplished by credit for knowledge equivalent to college courses (49-50).

The faculty of some institutions are equally disparaging of the practical experience and knowledge of nontraditional students. Possibly as a motivational strategy, traditional students are indoctrinated to believe that only college-educated, degree-holding professionals have any real knowledge and understanding of the world. This elitist attitude is offensive to nontraditional students who may have spent most of their lives performing meaningful, important functions in society. Such attitudes also may inhibit older student participation in the classroom, when they recognize that their knowledge is discounted as unworthy of consideration. Furthermore, classroom instruction often does not reflect the actual experiences older students have encountered in real-world environments. Students with experience in the field under study should be invited to share their expertise. Welcoming older students’ contributions can demonstrate a professor’s respect for the viewpoints of others, and can reinforce the notion that professors can also learn from students. Rather than promoting the model that a professor is an omniscient font of knowledge who must fill students’ empty minds (see Freire, 1968), professors can demonstrate the benefits of an exchange of knowledge, which is of increasing relevance as more traditional undergraduate students gain insights from part-time work.

In the Classroom

The presence of older students in the classroom often causes initial confusion, with the older student identified as part of the faculty. While some professors take the time to learn the backgrounds of their students, most do not. Even less effort is given to facilitating the integration of the older student into the classroom. The result is that the older student is sometimes ignored by classmates, since there is normally no peer in the group. This can result in an acute feeling of social isolation.

The older student also must carefully consider his actions in the classroom. A willingness to answer questions often results in the student being branded as a “know-it-all,” while a reluctance to volunteer answers further isolates the student. The life knowledge of the older student is often effectively ignored. Even when discussions center on events the older student has witnessed, and in which he or she has perhaps even actively participated, this life experience is discarded. In some cases, the older student may have experience and knowledge which is diametrically contradictory to information being presented as fact to the student body. In order to avoid conflict, the older student must accept the professor’s presentation.

Older students in their late 50s often find themselves in classrooms with professors much younger than they. In some cases, the student’s children are older than the professors. This generational difference causes some concern for the older student because it clouds the issue of expectations; the older student anticipates that the professor’s expectations will differ between older and traditional students. For some older students, the issue of common knowledge becomes a problem, especially in writing requirements, as the older student relies on knowledge and experience gained outside the classroom or instructional material presented in class. The professor’s lack of understanding and appreciation of the student’s life experience may cause confusion in his/her judgment of the student’s work.

Campus Life

Campus life for traditional students is centered on the activities sponsored by the educational institution, normally on campus outside of normal class hours. Students are rightfully encouraged to participate in these events. However, nontraditional students rarely take part in these activities due to other commitments. Ross-Gordon (2003) recommends that faculty recognize that adult students are deeply involved in life away from campus and do not have time or the same need to participate in traditional campus activities outside the classroom. (49-50). Many professors encourage student participation in these events by offering extra credit toward class grades. This places the nontraditional student at a distinct disadvantage and forces choices between family and work activities and those offered by the institution. In many cases, regardless of the older student’s desires, commitments off-campus prohibit participation in on-campus activities.


As the number of older students in the classroom continues to increase, traditional institutions must make changes to integrate these students into the student body. Whatever the reason for enrollment, older students deserve the same commitment to their educational experience as traditional students. This commitment is not served by requiring older students to perform as traditional students. Institutions and faculty must make efforts to understand the real-world experiences and knowledge older students possess, award credit where appropriate, and adapt degree programs which incorporate prior knowledge and educational goals.

While professors are socialized not to single out individuals who are different, but rather to treat students equally, in the case of nontraditional students, ignoring what they bring to the classroom can be interpreted as educational elitism and as a repudiation of students’ prior accomplishments. Professors should take the time to learn about the experiences of nontraditional students, not only for the potential value of such contributions to the class, but also to convey to such students that their past is valued. Relegating older students to the margins of the college experience will prompt some of them to abandon educational goals that could help enrich them as individuals as well as enhance their ability to contribute to society. Recognizing what these students bring to the classroom as well as what unique challenges they face can help assuage feelings of alienation that impede the satisfaction of this often-neglected segment of college students.


Flint, T. (2001). Principles of effectiveness for serving adult learners in higher education. The Catalyst 31(1) 3-9.

Freire, P. (2000; orig.1968). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group.

Ross-Gordon, J. (2003). Adult learners in the classroom. New Directions for Student Services102: 43-52.

Scala, M. (1996). Going back to school: participation motives and experiences of older adults in an undergraduate classroom. Educational Gerontology 22 (8) 747-774.

Sissel, P., Hansom, C., & Kasworm, C. (2001). The politics of neglect: adult learners in higher education. New Directions of Student Services 91: 17-27.

After a career in the military, Nelson Stydinger enrolled as an undergraduate at McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland, USA where he is majoring in Communication. He can be reached at

Dr. Lauren Dundes, Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at McDaniel College, has a research focus in pedagogy. Her scholarship has published in such journals as Teaching Sociology, the Journal of College Student Retention and the Journal of Dental Education. She may be contacted at


• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
Copyright ©
2006 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology