Fostering a Sense of Belonging within the Nontraditional Student Population — How Schools are Taking Action

Building an inclusive and equitable campus community is a challenge that involves making everyone feel welcome and valued. That includes nontraditional students. Definitions vary, but the group typically comprises students who may be older than average, pursuing a college education while holding a full-time job, veterans of the U.S. armed forces, commuters, responsible for dependents, seeking a career change, or pursuing further education.

While students in this group don’t necessarily fit into the traditional mold of a college student, they are an integral and growing part of modern higher education communities. In fact, a quarter of today’s higher education students are 25 years old or older, almost 42 percent work part-time, and more than 25 percent are parents, according to a Barnes & Noble College Insights report citing the CLASP Center for Postsecondary and Economic Success.

In addition, a May 2022 report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found that more than 39 million Americans make up a population it labeled “some college, but no credential.” The same report found that more than 944,000people in that group re-enrolled in college during the academic year of 2020-2021 — an impressive figure considering the timing of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nontraditional students bring a valuable perspective to college campuses, often entering academia with real-world experience in problem-solving, time management, and communication. Their diverse backgrounds, rich life experiences, and resilience make for more dynamic social and learning communities.

Nontrads also have unique challenges that may require tailored support, resources, and approaches to fostering a sense of belonging. “They are much less likely to feel they are socially connected, supported by their peers, or have friends at school,” states the B&N report, Achieving Success For Non-Traditional Students: Exploring the Changing Face of Today’s Student Population. “This can be a serious barrier to success and signifies a rising issue for schools in terms of retention and program completion.”

Nontraditional Student Unions, Services, and Appreciation Weeks

Recognizing this, many universities nationwide are taking steps to support the needs of nontraditional college students. Some offer resources and events directed at the non-traditional community as a whole. The University of Oregon’s Nontraditional Student Union, for example, serves as a place where nontrad students can relax, study, eat, and network with one another.

The University of North Texas appoints a non-traditional student representative to help guide students from this group through the college experience. North Texas also provides an entire week of programming known as Non-Traditional Student Appreciation Week every Fall semester that includes free food, social events, presentations, family fun nights, and football tickets. Students can even receive free, professional-grade headshots during the event.

To further build a sense of community, the university invites undergraduate adult learner students pursuing their first degree to join Alpha Sigma Lambda, a national honor society for qualifying adult learner students ages 24 and up.

At Texas State University, students have the option of joining the school’s Non-Traditional Student Organization, which “strives to provide a support network, learning atmosphere, social activities, and an opportunity for non-traditional students to develop a place in the campus community” and leads many university events.

Texas State NTSO members receive access to the university’s non-traditional student lounge, which includes a large study area, a full-service computer lab, and a kitchenette. Members also enjoy specialized educational programs and service activities, scholarship opportunities, and community support. Similarly, the NTSO at Oklahoma State University holds monthly lunch meetings and year-round activities designed for adults, their families, and their children.

The University of Central Florida, on the other hand, ensures that nontrads, including parent-students, adult learners, international students, and student veterans, have a voice by dedicating an entity in the Office of Student Involvement to Non-Traditional Knights (NTK).

“The NTK representatives that make up the executive board serve as an advisory board to the graduate assistant and assistant director of student outreach,” the University of Central Florida website states. “They will be the liaisons for their student populations, collecting data and putting on events that serve each individual population.”

Childcare, Housing, and Veteran Resources

Other schools cater to subgroups within the nontraditional student population. Approximately 20 to 40 percent of undergraduate students at the University of Idaho are nontraditional learners, which the Division of Student Affairs defines as older than 23, a parent, married, the primary caregiver of elderly parents, a veteran, or attending the school after taking a break before or during one’s university education.

To accommodate these students, the university offers a range of services, including access to the University of Idaho Children’s Center (UICC). The center, accredited by The National Association for the Education of Young Children, provides care for children aged six weeks to six years old in color-coded classrooms organized by age group.

UICC teachers provide far more than babysitting services, planning a weekly curriculum based on children’s strengths, needs, and interests. Teachers collect observation data throughout the day to assess individual child development, using that information to inform future curricula and assess progress.

In addition to a robust child care and education program, the University of Idaho offers a variety of on-campus family housing options, including those with apartment-style floor plans and specialized communities.  Finally, the University of Idaho’s Military and Veteran Services offers resources to veterans, guardsmen, reservists, and their dependents, helping them with everything from GI Bill certification to VA education benefits.

Indiana University Bloomington has a special connection to the U.S. military dating back to its founding in 1820, with many of the university’s first students, faculty, and trustees having military ties — some even serving in the War of 1812. Indiana University’s Division of Student Affairs houses the Center for Veteran and Military Students, which helps accommodate the nearly 500 veterans on the campus today.

In addition to helping veterans understand education benefits, process paperwork, and navigate leaves of absence, the Center for Veteran and Military Students educates the broader university community about the needs of veterans and military-connected students.

This includes coordinating campus celebrations of military-related observances and updating The Golden Book, a record documenting all IU men and women who have served in the U.S. military. The highly fragile historical document, housed within the Indiana Memorial Union, can no longer be held.

But they can access a digital version of the book via a 48-inch touchscreen. This experience shows miliary-connected students the historical breadth of the military community at Indiana — one they are very much a part of.


  • Christine Preusler

    Christine Preusler, Managing Editor at The Wyman Company in Gainesville, Florida, writes The Lead for ACUI's biweekly newsletter, The Bulletin. Christine uses more than 15 years of experience in publication management and a master’s in mass communications from the University of Florida to highlight the latest industry news and create thought-provoking content. Contact her via email ( with story ideas and announcements you'd like to see in the newsletter.