Harvard HGSE Computer Tables
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Today's adult students have more options than ever before to pursue that long-awaited dream of earning a college degree. Universities are continually expanding their programs to be able to fit the changing needs of all students in an evolving and dynamic society.

Whether you have a full-time job, are home raising your children, work a varying shift or simply find yourself consistently crunched for time,  most people can usually find a higher educational option that meets their needs. The possibilities for nontraditional students are many and, if one school doesn't match your needs, there is high probability another one will.

You can take classes on the web, at night, weekends, at extension sites closer to home, or even pursue a degree through a mentoring program. The choices are many and are designed to meet individual needs to afford a higher level of customization.

Today's degree programs do not demand you go to school full-time nor do you always necessarily even have to be matriculated until you are ready to claim a major.

Here are a few brief descriptions of how the nontraditional student can pursue higher education:

Online Classes

Classes on the web have exploded in popularity. What began as a small experimental extension of distance learning via video-tape and television has grown into full-time degree programs thanks to the development of the Internet. According to the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics, in 2007-08 approximately 4.3 million undergrads (20 percent of total) took at least 1 distance learning class, while 4 percent (0.8 million) took their entire degrees online. 1 This trend has continued to grow with colleges developing more and more entire degree programs online all the time. Everything from certificates and associate's degrees right up through postgraduate degrees can be earned online.

Today's students are able to take classes from the comforts of home at any hour of the day in a structured, yet flexible environment. If you want to log-in at 2 a.m. and hand in an assignment in your pajamas, you can do this. If you want to take a vacation, you can bring school with you. Working adults can spend their breaks and lunch hours going to class.

Man working on laptop
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If you have small children and do not have someone to mind them so you can attend school in the traditional campus classroom, the online platform allows a customization so you can take as few or many classes as you like. You can still be with your kids and work in your virtual classroom.

The beauty of having courses on the web available is the tremendous opportunities that await. You can choose from a university that is completely located online or you can mix and match your classes with traditional classroom studies to give some diversity and flexibility. Mix things up a bit.

Night or Weekend Courses

Colleges have recognized the need for flexibility in schedule and many have created schedules to allow the nontraditional student an opportunity to enroll and purse a degree. In addition to online courses, many schools now routinely schedule night and weekend courses.

As a result of this expansion, universities have discovered an entire new market to cater to and have seen nontraditional student enrollment surge. Night and weekend courses have become a popular avenue for nontraditional students to attend classes because they take place during a time which deviates from the 9 to 5 daytime job commitments.

College Extension Satellites

Many community college and 4-year universities now regularly rent space (i.e. in another building or at a local public school), or purchase their own buildings to allow students to attend classes in different cities. This cuts down on travel and makes going to college much more convenient for nontraditional students as it is typical for these buildings to be spread out across various regional areas to make geography less of an issue.

Many nontraditional students are attracted to the ability to take classes close to home without having to worry about traveling after a long day's work to get to the main campus of their chosen university. Extension sites are also popular with adult learners because these give them a way to attend classes without traveling to a central (and often crowded) campus. Years ago I took credit courses at night at a local high school. It was a great experience and really cut back on travel time and gas to get to class (eventually I did transition to the totally online route).

UNM lecturer Dan Schwartz addressing his Environmental Sociology class
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Mentoring Programs

Universities, such as Empire State College (ESU) in New York State, cater specifically to the nontraditional student and offer a variety of options for adult students to pursue higher education. 2 For example, at this university you can take classes with groups of students, use its online course option or work one-on-one with a mentor. The entire college philosophy is built upon customization to offer a choice of educational paths that fits each student's personal needs.

Mentoring programs, such as ESUs allow you to take your class individually and communicate either completely online or you can meet with your mentor in person once a week. This is a unique and exciting way to study because students have the opportunity to design their own degree programs to fit their schedules. It's very flexible and fits those who have other responsibilities outside of school.

It used to be that once you got past the age of high school graduation and went to work or began a family, college was often out of reach. However, today's parents, working adults or other nontraditional students have plenty of options to choose from.

Nowadays, pursuing a college degree, while still balancing other aspects of life such as families and work, is much more within reach than it used to be thanks to technology and the restructuring of college environments.

[Related reading: How to Prepare for a College Transfer ]