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Balancing school and home life: How to succeed as a non-traditional student

By: Seth Haxel

The transition to college is difficult under the best of circumstances, which is why the orientation process here at WVU for incoming students is designed to make the transition from high school to college as smooth as possible.  But what about the student who aren’t coming directly from high school? Or the students who started college and are coming back after time off to finish their degree or get a second degree?  These students, among others, make up a population called non-traditional students.

What is a non-traditional student?

What exactly defines the term "non-traditional student" is a topic of much debate.  Being over the age of 24 years old captures most non-traditional students, although age in itself is insufficient.  Other reasons that students may be categorized as non-traditional include not being enrolled as a full-time student, transferring schools, living off-campus, or returning to finish a degree or obtain a second degree.  There are too many reasons why students are non-traditional to list all of them, but some of the most common reasons are: financial difficulty, having children, needing to care for a family member, military service, uncertainty about career path, or change of career.

Four nontraditional students sitting and working together
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Common challenges faced by non-traditional students

The common factor that unites almost all non-traditional students is a feeling of not belonging.  The same system designed to make the transition from high school to college easy for traditional students loudly shouts “You don’t belong” to non-traditional students.  Non-traditional students also report increased stress from environmental factors relative to traditional students.  These environmental factors include (among others): finances, domestic responsibilities, housing, arranging child care, employment demands, and transportation.  Many traditional students have their parents paying for their tuition, housing, and food while non-traditional students often shoulder these burdens themselves.  

In addition, academic skills that were perhaps once sharp are now rusty, and non-traditional students may have to re-learn how to study, write papers, or read academic writing.  Depending on the student there may also be a loss of free time.  For someone who is accustomed to working 9:00-5:00 and then leaving their work at the office, coming home to a mountain of homework can be quite the adjustment.  This homework is often completed by sacrificing other areas of their life such as family time or hobbies.  According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the challenges faced by non-traditional students “interfere with successful completion rate of educational objectives” leading to higher dropout rate and longer time between beginning and completing their degree for non-traditional students when compared to traditional students.

It's not all bad!

Being a non-traditional student does come with some advantages.  Here are a few:
  • Non-traditional students often have a clear career path, which leads to increased focus on the classes they are interested in and a higher drive to learn the material.
  • Having a healthy dose of “real-life” experience, non-traditional students typically struggle less with the daily challenges of being a college student such as meeting deadlines, completing paperwork properly, registering for classes, selecting appropriate classes, or seeking help when needed.

  • Priorities are often clearer for non-traditional students. They have less trouble saying “no” than their traditional counterparts.  This helps keep them from becoming overwhelmed by the addition of school work on top of their already full lives.

  • They are intrinsically motivated to attend college.  Some traditional students attend college for external reasons such as expectations from parents or relatives.  However, non-traditional students are there for their own reasons which leads to increased motivation and often increased performance.

  • They know the value of education.  Nothing will show the value of a college degree like being in the work force.  Caps on salary based on level of education, inability to get promoted without a degree, or prevention from specific tasks due to lack of a degree are all common in the workforce.  Non-traditional students have often experienced these firsthand.

What to do if you're struggling

The Carruth Center for Psychological and Psychiatric Services offers free group and individual counseling to all students.  If you are a non-traditional student and find you’re struggling with any of the aforementioned challenges (or any other issues), please consider scheduling an appointment with a clinician at the Carruth Center.  Call our office at 304-293-4431 to schedule an appointment which will help direct you to the services that will best fit your concerns.

If you are specifically struggling with the academic aspects of being a non-traditional student, consider scheduling a Learning Skills Consultation with the Mindfit Clinic.  The Learning Skills Consultation consists of three academic coaching sessions for any WVU student who wants to improve their classroom performance.  There is a $75 fee for the three sessions which seems like a lot up front, but in the long run can pay huge dividends in terms of better grades and reduced stress. 

Other on Campus Resources

Student Family Resources (SFR) adheres to West Virginia University’s student-centered approach through the delivery of high quality services and programs for students who are parents. SFR provides a support system that can reduce family conflict, stress, and risk factors, allowing WVU’s student parents to pursue and complete their studies at West Virginia University.

Campus and Community Life for Non-Traditional Students at WVU Nontraditional Student Programs at WVU helps undergraduate students who have been out of high school for more than five years cope with University life.

Seth Haxel backpacking on in woods
Seth is a 2nd year student in the M.A. in Clinical Mental Health Counseling program here at WVU.  He is currently a supervised advanced trainee at the Carruth Center, where he provides individual and group counseling to students.  He is a non-traditional student, having begun graduate school 10 years after completing his undergraduate degree in psychology at the University of Virginia.  In the intervening 10 years, Seth worked in management in Charlottesville, VA, as an options trader in New York City, and in community mental health here in Morgantown.  When not at Carruth, Seth can be found with his wife chasing his 3-year-old son around the woods of West Virginia.

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