When adult learners come to college, they often bring an array of unique life experiences. But for these students who are 25 and up, there’s still a common thread.
“Because of their previous experiences, non-traditional students often have a deep drive to navigate their programs and earn their degrees,” said Brenda Panger, associate director of transfer admissions at The College of St. Scholastica.
These motivated students are dubbed “non-traditional,” given that most college students start in their late teen years. But with nearly 5,000 enrolled at the Council’s member institutions, they make up a sizable 11 percent of the overall student population.
For some, being a non-traditional student means returning to complete a degree started elsewhere. For others, it means enrolling in a degree program for the first time. Non-traditional students often juggle various responsibilities, roles and titles beyond the classroom — including parent, caregiver, working professional and more. Nine private colleges in Minnesota offer degree programs for adult learners; others offer certificates and professional development programs. Those with degree offerings are: Augsburg University, Bethel University, The College of St. Scholastica, Concordia College, Concordia University, St. Paul, Hamline University, Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota, St. Catherine University and University of Northwestern – St. Paul.
Emy Johnson, a Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota alum (′07 bachelor’s degree and ′15 master’s degree) knows that in addition to having drive, being a non-traditional student can also mean having moments of doubt. “I didn’t even see enrolling as a possibility until I met someone on staff at Saint Mary’s who invited me to visit campus,” said Johnson, a mother of three. “His advice to me was to just take one class as a starting point and that specific moment changed my entire trajectory.”
While Johnson was earning her bachelor’s degree at Saint Mary’s campus in Minneapolis, she balanced being a parent and a student. As a first-time student at the baccalaureate level, Johnson noted it first felt overwhelming to navigate higher education; everything from selecting courses and understanding program requirements to formatting papers in styles specific to academia was a new experience. She was also focused on earning a degree in an affordable manner while balancing her other roles of being a parent and a spouse. “My husband, my kids and I were a team while I was working towards my degree,” she said.
Deyvon Long is a senior at Concordia University, St. Paul (CSP), wrapping up dual bachelor’s degrees in elementary education and early childhood education. For him, the decision to enroll at CSP came after stepping away from a previous time in college to be a caregiver to family members facing health challenges. Over the course of five years away from college, Long started his career in education working within the St. Paul school district. At the time, recommendations from colleagues convinced him to consider CSP on his path to return to enroll in a degree program and become a licensed teacher.
“When I decided to go back to school, I knew I wanted to go back for a major in education. A lot of my colleagues were alums of CSP,” he said. “I didn’t know exactly where I wanted to go in Minnesota at the time, but I thought maybe I should try the private college route. Maybe there’s something different about it,” Long said. After researching his options, he was set on returning to school. “My initial line of communication with my transfer counselor was great. I had a positive first impression, especially compared to other colleges I looked into, so I chose to stay here in Minnesota,” he said.
Support for student parents
Similar to Johnson, Brooke Nohner understands the challenges — and positive aspects — of being a parent while also being a non-traditional student. Nohner is currently enrolled in The College of St. Scholastica’s post-baccalaureate nursing program in St. Cloud, which is an accelerated nursing program for college graduates with non-nursing majors who want to become registered nurses. While Nohner’s first career was focused on marketing and graphic design, her experiences giving birth to her two children sparked an interest in returning to school to pursue a career in nursing. “Nursing never even crossed my mind when I was in school for my first degree. When I was having children, the call to become a nurse started as a whisper. After having my daughter, I felt compelled to provide direct patient care. I realized how much I looked up to the nurses who cared for me during that time.”
In 2020, Nohner was enrolled as a student while homeschooling her young children amid the COVID-19 pandemic. “At one point, I was at the bottom of the mountain staring at the top wondering how this was going to work,” she said. From the challenges that came with this experience, Nohner recognized that she had to find her own routine and sense of balance by fitting studying into everyday tasks.
For Nohner, this meant involving her kids in the process of earning her degree. At the start of each month, her young daughter shares in the task of helping count and keep track of how many months are left until Nohner’s graduation as a way to share in Nohner’s goal. “My kids get to celebrate the successes of me as a student, and it’s extremely gratifying to share that with them.”
When it comes to the support she receives from St. Scholastica’s faculty and her classmates, Nohner has only positive things to say. “The second my instructors hear I have kids, they are understanding and accommodating. I’ve been pleasantly surprised about the support I’ve received as a student parent. I feel valued and seen,” she said.
Advice for prospective non-traditional students
When asked about what they would offer as advice to prospective non-traditional students looking to return to school or start a degree program for the first time, Johnson, Nohner and Long all had insights to share.
For Long, he sees non-traditional students as having varied and deeper life experiences that can be strengths in knowing how to set goals and achieve them. “Non-traditional students have different insights and approaches to school. Most non-traditional students have previously been in college or higher education but had to step away for different reasons. For most of us as non-traditional students, this is our second, third or fourth try. You only have so many chances. You have to know what you want and just go for it,” Long said.
Drawing upon her experiences as being a non-traditional student while raising her family, Johnson offered wisdom for other parents looking at their options. “As a parent, one of the things I feel we’re called to do is teach our children, and for me, that meant setting a goal and having my kids see me reach it.” In 2015, Johnson’s family was able to share in the culmination of her hard work when she spoke to the audience at Saint Mary’s convocation ceremony, including to her kids watching from the audience.
Nohner’s, advice to prospective non-traditional students is about flexibility and having patience. “You have to understand that other areas of life may have to give a little while you’re in your program. It’s important to have a little grace for yourself and have a support system in place. Just know that the program will go fast and even though the pace may feel wild, you’re capable.”
To learn more about the wide variety of options available to non-traditional students, start with the background on our adult learner page about the degree offerings for adult learners at nine different private colleges. You can read these college profiles as well in the Transfer Resource, starting on page 28. Non-traditional students can also benefit from the newly established Transfer Admission Guarantee.