Nontraditional students challenge the college stereotype


What comes to mind when imagining a traditional college student? Probably a recent high school graduate, 18 to 21, attending college full time to gain skills needed to enter the workforce. However, that stereotype does not hold true for almost 63% of the non-traditional-aged students attending classes at Saddleback College, according to data from the student dashboard.

Elliot Stern, president of Saddleback College, said in an email that students take classes for a variety of reasons:

Many students still come to us within a year or two after high school for career training or intending to transfer to a university. But more than ever we serve as a touchstone for life change through learning at all ages. Students come back to us for additional training for promotion, a new credential for a career change, or to pursue the dream they never pursued when they were younger. We know right now, for example, we have students who lost jobs in the service industry, decimated by Covid-19, coming to us for new career training or transfer opportunities. They may be 18-21, but they’re more likely to be 25, or 37 or 50.

Experts report a growing trend toward nontraditional students attending college, with one of the most noticeable characteristics being students’ age. The National Center for Education Statistics estimates 9.6 million students are older than 25 and they make up 43% of undergraduates across the nation.

The diverse population at Saddleback College reflects this national trend, however, its focus is more about the student needs.

“The college’s mission is less focused on age and more focused on providing programs and services to serve our local community,” said Nicola Perry, director of strategic enrollment management at Saddleback College. “We don’t build programs that are age-specific, we build profiles that are specific to the individual,” We build programs and engagement opportunities that speak to the whole student, not the age of the student. We look at what the student is coming in, age is secondary— the type of student they are is primary.”

Information from the Saddleback College dashboard for the fall semester reveals a wide age range: under 18 years old (6%), 18-21 (36%), 22-29 (19%), 30-39 (9%); 40-49 (6%), 50-59 (5%) and over 59 (18%). Overall, this shows that 63% of students are considered nontraditional based on the characteristic of age alone.

General student population. Saddleback College/Dashboard

Nontraditional-age student

Many colleges offer special programs and services for students of a nontraditional-age, though higher education programs and policies are often geared toward traditional students. However, older students have different needs and challenges than traditional-aged students and require specialized instructional assistance and campus support.

Researchers have found nontraditional-aged students enrolling in general classes may fear being compared with younger students. They may lack financial resources or prior learning or academic credentials may not be recognized, or they want to explore a new career path.

Research also shows that nontraditional adult students may experience barriers to balancing classes and managing multiple roles within their lives and work. These students may also have additional concerns regarding college costs, finding affordable child care, or receiving support from others.

Nontraditional-aged students can have challenges with technical skills, understanding information, ineffective writing and numeric skills or challenges with critical thinking and a lack of recent experience in an academic setting. These factors can affect a student’s self-esteem and promote a negative attitude toward being an adult learner— deterring many would-be students from participating in furthering their education at a college level.

However, being a nontraditional-aged student can also be an asset. Experts have found that these students often have a higher degree of tenacity, a stronger work ethic and an appreciation for engaging with individuals of all ages. They have also found that nontraditional-aged students appreciate the value and possibilities of completing their education and can apply their learning to life more readily.

“Nontraditional-age students, sometimes referred to as “returning” students, may be disadvantaged by time away from learning, forgotten knowledge and less memory power, states Stern. “But they make up for that with strong discipline and motivation, and they bring life experiences to the classroom, which makes for richer discussion and more diverse perspectives for everyone, including the traditional-age students.”

Stern continues by sharing his own personal experience of when he used to teach Biology to pre-Nursing students. “Some of my best students were middle-aged, returning to school to pursue the dream of a healthcare career after sending their own kids off to college, after losing a spouse or after being laid off from a manufacturing or service industry job. They end up being mentors and friends to traditional-age students, and everyone benefits from their presence.”

A student’s story

Ana Soltesz, graduated from Saddleback College. Ana Soltesz/courtesy

Ana Soltesz, from Brazil went back to school at Saddleback College because her past education was not recognized in the United States. In 2019, she graduated with honors from Saddleback College with an associate in nutrition at 41 years old.

“It was not just enough to pass, I wanted to understand and get a good grade so that it would help me in my future career,” Soltesz said.

Saddleback College background 

Saddleback College was established in 1968 offers a wide range of programs with over 300 associate degrees, academic certificates and occupational skills awards in 190 different programs for over 24,000 students.

The standard length of credited classes is 16 weeks, with some accelerated sessions offered over eight weeks. Most classes are held online through at least the spring semester of 2021 because of COVID-19.

Besides providing educational programs for a student population that ranges from 18 to over 99 years of age, Saddleback College also offers special services and programs for high school students, international students, disabled students and veterans. Many of these programs follow the semester schedule and can be taken on a part-time or full-time basis.

Students talking on campus at Saddleback College. Saddleback College/courtesy

Plus, the college offers classes and workshops through the adult education and community education as well as emeritus institute. These programs do not follow the same semester schedule, and classes are non-credit; however, they are part of Saddleback College’s educational platform.

College mission and perspective

Perry describes that the focus for colleges in California has been on students taking classes for credit up until the past 15 years. Schools may or may not have had community education or not non-credit classes.

Previously, schools received funds through state-based outcomes of serving traditional students, who tended to be between 18 and 21 years old and were full-time students. That has begun to change due to declining enrollments by traditional-aged students and the way that California incentivizes schools.

“In the last few years, the state has been incentivizing colleges to embrace different kinds of students, which is why a lot of small colleges are seeking to diversify,” Perry said.

This incentivization has brought about a change in programs offered and the types of students who enroll in classes. For Saddleback College, understanding whether they are a traditional or nontraditional student is based more on whether they are taking credit or non-credit classes, if they are recent high school graduate, are taking full-time or part-time classes, their specific educational goals and needs, and if they have a unique enrollment status.

“The focus and pressure have been on serving the traditional-aged students coming through that tended to be full time,” Perry said. “It’s nice, the shift has been wired to look at how well you are serving your students and what are the different kinds of students that we are coming and how we can support the colleges as these students come in.”

Perry says the overall mission of a community college is to serve its local community and different colleges around the state change their offerings depending on who they are serving and the prominent industries of the area.

Credit vs. non-credit classes

One factor that is considered in determining whether a student is nontraditional or not at Saddleback College, is if they are taking classes for-credit or non-credit. Database information from the student dashboard for the fall 2020 semester shows this varies significantly by age and program.

Age group for-credit classes. Saddleback College/Dashboard

Classes for-credit are taken by nontraditional-aged students: under 18 years old (8%), traditional students 18-21 years old (45%) and nontraditional students over 21 years old (47%).

The demographic makeup for non-credit classes is significantly different: students under 18 years old (<1%), 18 and 21 years old (2%) and nontraditional-aged students over 21 years old (97%), with the primary age being 59 years or older.

Age group for non-credit classes. Saddleback College/Dashboard

Full time vs. part time

Another factor that Saddleback College uses to identify nontraditional students, is determining if they are full-time with 12 units or more, or part-time with less than 12 units. Student dashboard numbers show that only 37% of students enrolled in for-credit classes are full-time, while the remaining 63% of students take less than 12 units per semester. While this factor is important, it is important to note that students may choose to take less than 12 units, because of work or other obligations.

Part time and full time student status. Saddleback/Dashboard

Adult education, community education and emeritus institute are all part of extended learning at Saddleback College and are primarily part time and non-credit, though students may take multiple classes or workshops at a time. “Extended Learning programs strive to provide quality academic programs and enrichment opportunities for learners of all ages and from diverse backgrounds, to ensure the community’s advancement and lifelong success,” said Karima Feldhus, executive dean of extended learning.

Educational goals 

Students choose Saddleback College for a myriad of reasons. The majority of students are enrolled in classes for-credit— with 72% of students aspiring to further their education, by earning a credential or certificate or transferring to a four-year college. With a small percentage of students earning units while attending a four-year institution or for personal development.

Student educational goals for-credit classes. Saddleback College /Dashboard

Conversely, 88% of students take non-credit classes for personal development and <3% are undecided or taking them for transfer or units.

Educational goals non-credit. Saddleback College, Dashboard

A student’s story

Marsha Schleiffers, graduated Saddleback College. Marsha Schleiffers/courtesy

Marsha Schleiffers was diagnosed with epilepsy when she was four years old. She went to the Department of Rehabilitation for assistance, which led to her starting classes at Saddleback College. With hard work and perseverance, she graduated at 46 years old in 2020, with one degree in psychology and second in general education.

“I used to joke that I had minimum wage jobs but never had a career,” Schleiffers said. “I didn’t want to have to work two or three jobs and wanted to do something I would enjoy. Having a degree, meant better work and to get paid to do something I really love.”

Getting started at Saddleback College

Nontraditional students come from all walks of life at Saddleback College and share one common denominator: they all choose to make education a priority. Saddleback College offers lifelong learning to students of all ages interested in furthering their education.

The first step is to apply for admission and complete the matriculation process. Most questions about the matriculation process are answered on this frequently asked questions page. Once a student completes their application, they can set up a Student Advisement session to create a first-semester education plan.

If the completion of a degree or certificate is a goal, Learning Pathways, a state and national framework provides an educational path and information to support the completion of academic goals within a customized timeframe.

The career coach page offers an online career assessment and a description of various career choices by industry and various educational programs offered at the college. The career reentry center also offers assessments and resources for students returning to school after an extended period of time. Many questions concerning educational requirements at Saddleback College can be answered on this frequently asked questions page.

Finally, schedule an appointment with a counselor for an online counseling appointment and find out about the small group workshops. Counselors will help create an individualized My Academic Plan specific to your goals and needs during the meeting. If there is a need for financial aid, check out the various programs and resources available, then submit an application.

If a student has previously attended Saddleback classes they can book an appointment with a counselor to find out how many credits are needed to graduate. Students interested in noncredit classes can check out the adult enrichment programs offered at adult education, community education and the emeritus institute.