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Nontraditional Students: Earning College Credit for Life Experience

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The “typical” college student of the past was 18-22 years old, lived on campus, attended college full time, and enrolled in college directly from high school. Fewer than 17% of college students currently meet these criteria. The following characteristics are common among students identifying as nontraditional students:

  • They are generally over the age of 25
  • They have interrupted college for more than one academic year
  • They may require special services to attain their degree
  • They manage other responsibilities (such as career or family) while attending school

Nontraditional students face the same stresses as traditional students. Studies have indicated that nontraditional students had considerably more time and role conflicts than other college students. Nontraditional students display significantly lower levels of academic stress and report being more satisfied with their academic experience. They also reported less worrying about their performance. The stress felt by nontraditional students is usually associated with things happening outside of the academic realm.

Many nontraditional students attend classes and earn credit the normal way – they attend classes in a traditional classroom setting. You have more options with nontraditional study. Nontraditional study is well suited to the independent learner. If you are unorganized and find that you tend to procrastinate, nontraditional study may not be for you. Some nontraditional approaches to course work and college credit include:

Distance Learning – Distance learning requires significant independent study. You may use the phone, mail, e-mail, and the internet to maintain contact with your instructor. Quite a few colleges offer distance learning courses. These classes are full credit-bearing classes where you receive course outlines, assignments, ad textbooks at home and complete your work at home on your own schedule. There are deadlines for registering for these classes and for course completion.

Independent Study – Independent study is an individualized instruction program. The courses generally require the same amount of work as a traditional class and carry the same amount of credit. You can establish the guidelines for your independent study through your academic advisor or a faculty member.

Credit by Exam – Many colleges will award credit toward your degree received through credit-by-examination programs. These programs offer exams covering general education areas and specific subject areas. Every college has its own policies on accepting credits for exams, so make sure you check with your college before pursuing these programs. Credit-by-Exam programs include: Excelsior College Examinations, College-Level Examination Program (CLEP), DANTES Subject Standardized Test (DSST), and the Thomas Edison State College Examination Program (TECEP).

Evaluation of Prior Learning – Prior Learning is any education, information, or experience that can be documented by a portfolio, or can be assessed through examination. Unfortunately, time on the job does not automatically translate to college credit. Any experience that you may have must be documented before any credit can be granted. You can document prior learning in a few ways:

  • Training Program Assessment – The National Program on Non-collegiate Sponsored Instruction (National PONSI) evaluates courses and training programs sponsored by corporations, unions, and the armed services. They issue program guides with credit recommendations for those deemed equivalent to college courses.
  • Portfolio Assessment – Many colleges offer the opportunity to create a written compilation of prior learning. This documentation is usually referred to as a portfolio. It is evaluated by a faculty member to determine if credits can be granted. This portfolio can include autobiographical information; statements about the type, method and length of your learning experience; and examples of work completed during the experience. Some colleges offer a course that serves as an aid in creating a portfolio for evaluation.

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