Two students conversing at a table in a daylight filled corridor at Western Sydney University Bankstown City Campus

Understanding Nontraditional Students

With the landscape of higher education in constant flux, our Adaptations panel discussions are a forum for academic leaders around the globe to voice their perspectives on the latest challenges and opportunities in the industry today.

Our most recent discussion examined nontraditional students, helping us better understand this population of learners, why they are here, the challenges they face and, perhaps most notably, how their presence motivates institutions to be more inclusive, diverse and equitable in their academic offerings.  

The Makeup of Nontraditional Students

Nontraditional students encounter various challenges while pursuing their education. During our discussion, we found commonalities in the characteristics that define nontraditional students across our panelists' universities. 

Factors Influencing Nontraditional Student Enrollment

The Rise of Extended Student and Retirement Years

"The population size of students moving from high school to higher education in the United States is dropping, and as a result, student age demographics are changing. When I was in medical school, it was noteworthy that the oldest student in my class was 39. Today, it’s common for students to be in their forties, even fifties, in part, because the retirement age is getting older, especially for physicians." — Dr. Carlisle

Degrees Still Matter

"Despite media coverage about university degrees being worthless, there is still value attached to a degree, and employers are, in many cases, still looking for graduates with a degree. Over the last decade, governmental policies in Australia have encouraged students to return to their studies and have strengthened our universities’ commitment to serving the needs of their local communities." — Dr. Kirkpatrick

How Nontraditional Students Enrich Campus Life

Fostering Dynamic Dialogues

"The life and work experience adult learners bring with them to the classroom adds layers of richness and depth to our classroom discussions that benefit all learners." — Dr. Lindberg

Providing Constructive Feedback

"I know it's tough to hear, but the constructive feedback we receive from nontraditional students is helping to challenge norms in education moving forward.” — Dr. Lewis

Empowering Nontraditional Student Success

During our discussion, panelists revealed the following strategies and tactics for creating a sense of belonging for nontraditional students on campus.

Designing Inclusive Learning Spaces for Nontraditional Students

Creating a Sense of Home

"We're creating spaces on campus that anticipate a wide range of student needs — from a shower, nap or video game session to a quiet or active space to study individually or with groups — we hope to make students feel supported by meeting them where they are."
— Dr. Lewis

Establishing High-Tech Spaces for Flexible Engagement

"WSU is building new campuses and redeveloping existing campuses to create learning experiences based on universal design principals in flexible, high-tech learning spaces that help achieve high-flex student engagement and maximize student participation on and off campus." — Dr. Kirkpatrick

Looking Ahead

During this year's higher education summit, 30-plus HDR team members leveraged insights from our discussion to reexamine an upcoming science, technology, engineering and math building through the lens of nontraditional students and student wellness. In this collaborative session, these topics were incorporated into the design, highlighting the importance of putting students at the forefront of design conversations in higher education.

As I reflect on the summit, I'm filled with inspiration. I believe our design teams have a unique opportunity to drive the development of nontraditional design solutions. This involvement can position nontraditional students for success while also assisting institutions in meeting their financial goals.

headshot of Leila Kamal
Education Director