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How to Develop Education for Nontraditional Students and Why

  • 5 Min Read

Who are nontraditional learners and what are they expecting from higher education? Discover how and why online learning modalities are appealing to nontraditional learners, and the outcomes this kind of learning can produce.


The number of nontraditional students entering or reentering higher education is gaining steam like pumpkin spice lattes at the first whiff of fall.  

Nontraditional learners—in this instance, those at least over 25—currently make up about 35% of the student population in the U.S. 

The growing number of these nontraditional students is something higher ed institutions are not only aware of—they’re keen to serve them as well. 

Of presidents and provosts surveyed by EAB, 100% said enrollment for adult and graduate students is a strong or moderate priority. Half of the respondents said that on top of increasing the number of programs targeting this group, they’ve upped their enrollment goals for a more mature demographic since 2020. 

So, more nontraditional learners want continuing education options, and many institutions are opening their doors to welcome them in. 

But who are these learners, and what are they expecting from higher education? 

Let’s define what a nontraditional student is and discuss which learning methods they prefer and why. 

What Is a Nontraditional Student? 

When talking about the growth of nontraditional students, the majority of the demand is coming from working professionals looking to upskill or reskill for their career development. Whether or not they have previous education, one thing they have in common is they’re entering new and different worlds of academia.  

Another defining characteristic of these nontraditional learners: They have priorities that coincide with their education. They have kids or elderly parents to look after, careers or multiple jobs, extracurriculars, and personal lives that fill up their time. 

They’re often ambitious, looking for ways to fit education into their lives that is flexible in cost and time. 

Below we’ll cover how online learning—including examples of modalities and outcomes it can foster—can lead to the development of education for nontraditional learners that suits their busy lifestyles. 

The Value of Continuing Education for Learners and Institutions

In 2017, nearly 40% of students enrolled at a degree-granting postsecondary school were over the age of 25—that’s almost 8 million students! With such a large group falling outside the fresh-out-of-high-school student scope, it’s easy to see why offering continuing education courses is becoming more popular in postsecondary education. Find out how institutions are tackling the challenge in a recent blog.

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Why Online Learning Appeals to Nontraditional Students 

One of the biggest perks of providing online courses for nontraditional learners is the flexibility they yield.  

Since 2013, online enrollment has grown 4% annually, a rise that is attributed to the growing interest of nontraditional learners in studying remotely. 

In the fall of 2020, 60% of students at private, for-profit institutions and 46% of learners at public institutions were enrolled in distance learning courses. While 2020 may have been skewed by the pandemic, online learning has risen in the ranks as a preferred modality since it was shoved into the limelight.

Since nontraditional students often have busy lifestyles, taking a course online allows them to fit it more easily into their schedules. Logging on to a platform from their home, for example, instead of commuting to and from a campus saves them valuable time.  

Online learning makes diving back into the world of education more realistic for nontraditional learners. 

A graphic showing the relationship between online learning, it's modalities and outcomes.

Online Modalities Suited to Nontraditional Students 

Asynchronous Learning 

If online learning allows adult learners to decide where they want to learn, asynchronous learning lets them decide when. 

If somebody works a full-time job, has a family to look after and/or wants to maintain a bustling social life, being able to decide when they want to put their student hat on is a game changer for nontraditional students. 

Research shows that the ease of access asynchronous learning presents—where a student gets to decide when they’ll be most productive and get the most out of what they’re studying—is a benefit to all learners. 

While this method is often favored by nontraditional learners, some students can find learning independently online to be isolating. It’s important to remember to bake social connections into the program. 

Thoughtful course creation can help build those relationships. Research has also shown that using discussions and forums is an effective way to build connections among students who are separated by a computer screen. 

Self-Directed Learning 

This method is often a strategy used in competency-based learning. When self-directed learning is used to instruct nontraditional students, they’re able to decide not only what to learn but also how, when and where they want to do it. 

One example of self-directed learning includes courses with prerecorded videos that learners can watch at their own pace. There aren’t strict deadlines, allowing for flexibility in completing the required materials and assessments. Think along the lines of LinkedIn Learning or badges earned through the HubSpot Academy. 

While this method of instruction fits well with people’s busy lifestyles, it does require a certain level of self-regulation. The student is in charge of committing themselves to complete the course and reflect critically on what they’ve learned instead of robotically moving through the motions to check off the requirements of the course. 

Outcomes of Online Learning for Nontraditional Students 

Micro-credentials and Certificates 

Online learning has led to the rise of noncredit education that can be more affordable and less time-consuming. 

These kinds of courses encompass the crux of what nontraditional learners prefer: education that can be achieved when and where they decide. 

Micro-credentials can be one-off courses or a series of stackable ones that can be combined to earn a larger credential as they’re completed. They also lend themselves to being taught online, asynchronously or self-directed, which fits right into the preferred learning modalities of these learners. 

Certificates follow in the same vein as micro-credentials. While they generally already have a predetermined set of courses required to complete the credential, many are offered in formats that suit the needs of learners with busy lives.  

These kinds of credentials can often be more affordable too. Since they’re taken as stand-alone courses or can be achieved over time, the financial requirement of students is lower or more spread out. 

Putting the Student First 

If you’re a higher ed institution thinking of getting into or expanding your offerings for the nontraditional demographic, it’s important to know how to develop the education they’ll want to take part in and why.  

Understanding their needs ahead of time will allow you to create credentials that appeal to these learners and attract them to your institution. 

Using online learning to provide flexible course options like asynchronous and self-directed instruction through micro-credentials or certificates can help nontraditional learners fit their educational aspirations into their busy lives. 

Want to know more about the tools needed to deliver world-class continuing education for nontraditional students? Discover how Brightspace can streamline your continuing education efforts today. 

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Table of Contents
  1. What Is a Nontraditional Student? 
  2. Why Online Learning Appeals to Nontraditional Students 
  3. Online Modalities Suited to Nontraditional Students 
  4. Outcomes of Online Learning for Nontraditional Students 
  5. Putting the Student First