Published on 2013/08/08

Top Four Challenges Faced By Non-Traditional Students at Community Colleges

Top Four Challenges Faced By Non-Traditional Students at Community Colleges
Non-traditional students face a significant set of challenges in their path to a postsecondary credential, but institutions can help ease the journey by demonstrating they empathize with their students.

I have learned through trials and tribulations with higher learning that it does not matter how much a person knows until you first believe how much they care. More than anything, non-traditional students need a consistent reminder that “we care.”

This can be achieved through daily exhibits of compassion to students who are arriving with a diverse set of challenges and the understanding that a “cookie-cutter” method of resolution will not apply. This can be achieved if each staff member at any higher learning institution, regardless of job position, embraces those small moments when encountering any student to exhibit the smallest act of kindness, whether through a word of encouragement or a smile, or simply sharing how excited you are about their educational pursuit.

Below is a list of the four greatest challenges I have seen non-traditional students overcome at community colleges.

1. Balancing Financial Commitments

Finances are one of the greatest challenges non-traditional students face when they decide to attend a community college or university. The financial challenge is not only associated with having sufficient funds to pay for the cost of tuition and books, but often extends to a simple question of, “How will I have money to get back and forth to school or to eat lunch?” These financial challenges are further exasperated due to the economic instability in the personal lives of many students, who are living in situations less than conducive for achieving academic success due to no, or minimal, income and/or financial support from parents and family. Some students reside in neighborhoods with high crime rates, which lack the required structure to facilitate academic success. This fosters a strong desire in students to forge ahead but the student is still left with the question of, “How?”

2. Being the First to Enroll

Many non-traditional students are the first generation in their families to have the opportunity to attend college. As a result, these students are unfamiliar with the internal processes and often confronted with the initial challenge of simply understanding the process for registration, financial aid and how to effectively select courses for a specified degree or certificate program. The community college has staff to advise and assist students with the transition into higher learning, but many students are still challenged and can easily become de-motivated before entering the classroom on the first day of class.

3. Difficulty with Technology

Students are further challenged because many arrive to college without computer equipment and, at times, without having the ability to access the Internet from their homes. This presents learning challenges when all communication is done through the student email system. Technology has become a central component to the effective functioning and continued growth in all of our lives. Thus, it can be a challenge for students arriving at college for the first time.

4. Having the Confidence to Succeed

I believe one of the greatest challenges non-traditional students face is arriving to community college with low self-esteem and/or an inadequate faith in their ability to succeed. As an inspirational speaker and life coach, I understand that regardless of the academic tools and support provided to students to achieve success, without a strong belief in one’s ability to grow and learn, it becomes an arduous task. This is evidenced when some students are easily deterred from continuing on in their education when faced with financial challenges or what may be deemed as “regimented” internal processes. Students are sometimes left feeling as though they must “figure things out” on their own as they are being prepared for the working world.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Readers Comments

Daniel W 2013/08/08 at 11:58 am

Interesting read. This got me thinking about ways we might help to ease the transition for non-traditional students either in higher education for the first time or returning after a long hiatus. One idea might be to have a mandatory orientation for non-traditional students where staff could explain common aspects of the postsecondary experience (e.g. applying for financial aid) and faculty could have a meet-and-greet with incoming students.

It could be organized as a Q&A and might go a ways to demystifying the experience for this group. Support and services offered by institutions needn’t always be costly. An orientation or other similar activity would be a low-cost, high-impact way to address non-traditional students’ concerns.

Glenda Cullen 2013/08/08 at 4:53 pm

Institutions need to offer better support to students who are the first in their families to enroll in higher education. I believe this is a high-needs group that is often overlooked. They would benefit from what I call ‘translation’ support, that is, support in explaining (translating) all of the norms and administrative processes we sometimes take for granted in higher education.

Karen Southall Watts 2013/08/12 at 4:28 pm

Darlene, I was pleased to read this piece and see so many of my own experiences with non-trad students echoed here. As more and more of the registration process and teaching material moves online in our schools I would really love to see us address #3 more. Many community college students are still part of the often unacknowledged digital divide. Either they are older non trad students with limited experience using computers, or younger students who have only used technology for entertainment purposes. Many of our students can only use computers at libraries or on campus and this can severely limit the amount of time they have to truly become comfortable with technology. Your piece and several others recently here on the website point to the need for more front-end orientations and training sessions to refresh or build up the core skills needed to cope in today’s higher education environment.

    Darlene 2013/08/13 at 2:17 am


    I greatly appreciate the comments on the article published. I like the information shared to assist with implementing solutions to these top four challenges. I encourage each of you to take your solutions to the community college and universities in your local area. I am a firm believer that change – (improvements) – can happen one voice at a time. Thanks for sharing your comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *