Analytic Quality Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2004-21, Analytic Quality Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 22 September, 2021 , © Lee Harvey 2004–2021.


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Non-traditional students

core definition

Non-traditional students are those entrants to higher education who have population characteristics not normally associated with entrants to higher education, that is, they come from social classes, ethnic groups or age groups that are underrepresented.

explanatory context

Non-traditional students may also include gender groups in some areas, such as females in engineering and males in nursing, as well as students with a disability.


The term ‘non-traditional student’ is used in Canada, USA and the UK. In such countries a traditional higher education students tends to be a (recent) high-school leaver (around the ages of 17–20), from the (upper) middle classes. Some ethnic groups tend also to be underrerepresented. It is also used in countries in Europe, usually to define students who are older at the point of enrolment.


However, there are increasing numbers of non-traditional students entering higher education

analytical review

A North American view:

Every school has its own definition of what a ‘non-traditional’ student is, but generally a non-traditional student is:

·      An older student, usually over the age of 24 or 25.

·      A student who previously has attended college and is returning to college after a few years break.

·      A student who graduated from high school and went directly into the work force and is now attending college for the first time.

The non-traditional student is the fastest growing segment of the student population. According to U.S. Census Bureau Reports (October, 1996) 6.2 million college students in the United States (40.9%!) were 25 years of age or older. (DiFiore, 2003)


Another US view states that ‘non-traditional students’ is:

An American English term referring to students at higher education institutions (undergraduate college or university) whom are not of the typical age or societal situation as the majority of their peers. In the United States, college students are typically age 18-22, unmarried, and without physical or learning disabilities. In contrast, non-traditional students may be individuals who achieved their GED late, former homemakers preparing to join the workforce, unsuccessful business people training for a different profession, or an individual using a motorized wheelchair or an animal companion.

The term is not generally used for secondary students who have been left back. Nor is it used as widely in graduate school, where some programs reach as high as 50% of students returning for further education from time in the workforce. (, 1999–2003)

The U.S. Department of Education (2005) defines non-traditional students as:

Students who possess one or more of several characteristics, including delayed enrollment, part-time student status, full-time employment, financial independence, responsibility for dependents, and enrollment after the twenty-fifth birthday.

One view from the UK (Morey et al. 2003) lists:

students from non-traditional backgrounds including:

·      mature students;

·      those from lower socio-economic backgrounds;

·      first generation undergraduates;

·      students from ethnic minorities;

·      students with disabilities.


Given and Smailes (undated) in thei report on the pedagogical needs of non-traditional students state:

Characteristics of a Non-traditional Student: The literature does not have a standard definition for non-traditional students and writers have defined this group through a myriad of differing traits such as ethnicity, gender, social class, age and family background (e.g. Wilson, 1997; Kimbrough & Weaver, 1999; Bowl, 2003; Leathwood & O’Connell, 2003). For the purposes of this report, a non-traditional student is defined as being either a 1st generation student (the student does not have a family history of entering higher education) or a mature student (a student that is aged above 24 years old).

Rautopuro and Vaisanen (2001, p. 1) refer to:

non-traditional or mature students (usually defined as aged over 23 or 25 years at enrolment)..... It should be noted, however, that definitions of terms such as 'adult', 'mature', and 'non-traditional' are problematic since they are context bound and vary considerably both within countries and between countries.

associated issues

Non-traditional students are often poorly accommodated in universities and are also frequently discriminated against in the graduate job market, see for example the study by Morey et al. (2003) and the summary by Harvey (2003) for a presentation in Edinburgh at the AGCAS conference in 2003.

related areas

See also



DiFiore, L., 2003, Financial Aid Strategies For Non-Traditional Students, Part I, What is a Non-Traditional Student?, updated 23 Febrary, 2003 , accessed 5 September 2012, still available 26 June 2019.

Given, J. and Smailes, J., undated, Report on the Pedagogical Needs of Non-traditional Students, Learning and Teaching Support Section, University of Northumbria.

Harvey, L., 2003, Higher Education Careers Services And Diversity: How Careers Services Can Enhance The Employability Of Graduates From Non-Traditional Backgrounds, Executive Summary for a presentation at the AGCAS Conference, Edinburgh, 2003.

Kimbrough, D. and Weaver, G. , 1999, 'Improving the background knowledge of non-traditional students', Innovative Higher Education, 23(3) pp. 197–219., 1999–2003, Non-traditional students,, accessed 5 September 2012, page not available 4 January 2017.

Leathwood, C. and O’Connell, P., 2003, '‘It’s a struggle’: the construction of the ‘New Student’ in higher education', Journal of Education Policy, 18(6) pp. 597-615.

Morey, A., Harvey, L., Williams, J., Saldana A., and Mena, P. with Watson, W. and MacDonald, M., 2003, HE Careers Services & Diversity: how careers advisory, services can enhance the employability of graduates from non-traditional backgrounds, HECSU/AGCAS/Centre for Research into Quality.

Rautopuro, J. and Vaisanen, P., 2001, 'Non-traditional students at university: a follow-up study of young and adult students' orientations, satisfaction and learning outcomes', Paper presented at the European Conference on Educational Research, Lille, 5–8 September 2001, available at, accessed 5 September 2012, still available 26 June 2019.

Wilson, F., 1997, 'The construction of paradox?: One case of mature students in higher education', Higher Education Quarterly, 51(4) pp.347–66.

United States Department of Education, National Center for Educational Statistics, 2005, Digest of education statistics. Washington, DC: U.S Department of Education.

copyright Lee Harvey 2004–2021

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