Melissa Briggs may have started her educational career like most students, but her journey has not taken the traditional path to a bachelor’s degree.
“Out of high school, I went to Austin Community College because I didn’t have the grades to get into a big four-year college,” Briggs says. “Then in the midst of that, I got married and had a kid, so I decided to stop with my associate degree.”
Briggs was able to find a good job with her two-year degree, so she didn’t look at going on to pursue a bachelor’s degree.
“Then COVID hit,” Briggs says, “and I lost my nice job.”
With her son now looking into going to college, and with financial assistance available, she decided to go back to school and continue her education. With that decision, she became part of a growing population who don’t fit the traditional definition of college student.
They can be seen around campus and in the classroom, and they seem a little different from the rest of their classmates. They may appear to be a little older or more mature. With some, there are more obvious differences. A few may even look more like faculty than students. But they are college students, just not the traditional kind. They are what is referred to as “nontraditional” students.
Knowing who is a nontraditional student is not simple. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), nontraditional students are defined through three main criteria, including enrollment patterns, financial and family status, and high school graduation status.
Since the traditional enrollment pattern includes going to college immediately after graduating from high school and attending full time, the NCES defines nontraditional students as those students who delay their initial enrollment by a year or more, or who are enrolled part time. Likewise, students are considered nontraditional under the NCES criteria if their financial and family status includes being married or having dependents, if they are working full time while enrolled, or whether they are financially independent from their parents. The NCES also considers students nontraditional based on their graduation status if they have earned a GED or received a certificate of high school completion, instead of a traditional diploma.
While the NCES definition of nontraditional isn’t based on age alone, many nontraditional students are typically older than their traditional counterparts. According to the NCES, about one third of all college students are age 25 or older. Information available from the Office of Institutional Research at Texas State University indicates there are 3,198 undergraduate students enrolled at the institution in that age group. That’s nearly ten percent of the university’s current total undergraduate enrollment.
The reasons students have for pursuing a nontraditional path to a college education are about as varied as the students themselves. Some chose to start working after high school, either because they couldn’t afford to go to college or because they didn’t think it was an option for them. Others tried to go to college after high school but weren’t successful. Some chose to get married and start a family, or they had that choice forced on them by circumstance. Many chose to serve in the military, either out of a sense of duty or lack of other opportunities. Most have now found themselves unemployed or in a dead-end job and find they need a college degree to advance in an increasingly competitive job market. And some saw their marriages fail or their children grow up and move away, creating an unexpected relationship or financial opportunity for a life change.
Whatever their reasons or how they got there, their goals are not that different from those of their classmates. They want to be successful in the classroom and earn a college degree. For that, they need the same support services as every other student.
In some cases, they need a little bit more.
That’s where organizations like the Non-Traditional Student Organization (NTSO) come into the picture. NTSO is a chartered student organization at Texas State University. According to its website, NTSO sponsors social events, provides scholarship opportunities, and participates in campus-wide programs. Membership is open to all students who meet at least one of the criteria for nontraditional student status outlined by the NCES. Semester dues for the organization are $15 per semester.
Briggs, who is the vice president of NTSO, says being in the organization helped her find resources she didn’t know were available to students at Texas State. As an officer in the organization, she tries to pass on that information to others by posting it in the Non-Traditional Student Lounge on the fourth floor of the LBJ Student Center.
“I started last semester and any kind of information I found, I came and posted it here,” she says. “I posted it on the board, so that way [other students] could find the information easily.”
Briggs describes the lounge as a quiet space for students to work or just hang out between classes. It includes an area with couches for group study or conversations, a computer lab with a printer, and a kitchenette with a refrigerator, toaster oven, and coffee maker. Members can freely access to the space throughout the day.
Starlia Phillips considers the Non-Traditional Student Lounge to be a safe space for students like her and Briggs. It’s helpful to have the sense of community it provides, she says.
“I really enjoy the time I spend up there, because I feel like I’m decompressing,” says Phillips, “but studying, too. And it’s much quieter than the library.”
Phillips is one of the many nontraditional students at Texas State who are also veterans of military service. She says she was a good student in high school, but she pushed herself too much to be perfect and got burned out. As a result, she left school early, got her GED and high school equivalency, and joined the Army.
After she got out of the Army, Phillips went back to school. Having a baby made that challenging, so she decided to wait a few years and try technical school. Technical training could only take Phillips so far, so she tried again.
“I went back to school in 1999 to start a computer science degree,” Phillips says, “and because of family stuff I couldn’t finish that.”
Not one to give up, Phillips enrolled at Austin Community College in 2019, this time choosing a program she really wanted to pursue, and completed an associate degree in art. Now she’s at Texas State working on a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in sculpture, with a minor in anthropology.
With her service in the Army, Phillips is part of a subset of nontraditional students who are also veterans. According to public data available from the university, 506 enrolled undergraduate students are veterans. The university provides support for veterans and their dependents that includes help in obtaining education benefits, career guidance, counseling, and resources for academic success. Veterans also have access to financial assistance for education and training through the GI Bill, and in Texas, the Hazlewood Act.
The Non-Traditional Student Organization at Texas State University have exclusive access to a lounge area on the fourth floor of the LBJ Student Center. Vice President Melissa Briggs and member Starlia Phillips share why that’s important to them and their community.
But for Briggs and Phillips, having an organization like NTSO available for students like them provides a sense of community where they can help each other achieve a common goal. Both Briggs and Phillips will receive their bachelor’s degrees in May. In doing so, they will be achieving the same goal as their more traditional student counterparts. They are just doing it in a nontraditional way.
“We start off from different places,” Briggs says. “but we all have the same goal to graduate with a degree.”