Non-Traditional Students: A League of Their Own

By Amy Huber, Editor –

JugglingThe common belief is that college students are in their late teens, or early twenties.

However, the reality is that many students fall into the non-traditional category. While the

average age of a student nowadays is 26, many students – especially at community colleges – are

over the age of 30.

“I have at least one non-traditional student in every class,” said Nicholas Budimir,

sociology professor at MCC, “while in other classes nearly half the students are non-traditional. I

also have, I am sure, the oldest student on campus in classes with me, a World War II veteran.”

The age of students tends to vary in classes, as well as what time the classes meet, and

whether or not they are online. The subject being taught also tends to influence the age of


Greg Marczak, who teaches math and chemistry, says about 90 percent of his students

are non-traditional.

“I tend to see way more non-traditional students in my night class,” said Budimir.

While age is one defining aspect, other factors that define non-traditional are that they

have children, already have careers, or already have at least one degree.

“Often, though not in all cases, they are more willing to share their life experiences in

class discussions, more likely to speak-up, more likely to have had great contact with some

material and examples I commonly use to communicate sociological concepts” Budimir said.

These skills could certainly give a student a distinct advantage. Sometimes though, age

can also give a student a distinct disadvantage as Budimir points out.

“On the other hand, they are more likely to have technical and computing questions,

though not in all cases,” he said, “and they are sometimes a challenge to control because they

really want to talk about a topic and get their point across, but this is more a joy than a


While age and experience may prove to be an advantage to older students, the challenges

of having a job while juggling college and possibly children at home can prove to be its own set

of challenges to some.

“Their studiousness varies,” Budimir said. “Most are very dedicated and serious about

their homework, writing and speaking, while some have certain barriers or struggles such as time

constraints and family constraints that sometimes interfere with work, through for the most part I

am pleased with the seriousness with which they approach schooling.”

Some professors indicate they really like non-traditional students because they elevate the

academic level of the class.

Budimir said that of the 20 students in his marriage and family course, five are older non-


Enrolling later in life presents a set of challenges, such as family and time constraints and

lack of familiarity of modern technology, coupled with modern classroom settings, which may

seem unfamiliar to those who went to school back in the day of desks and chalkboards. Another

issue with non-traditionals is interacting with young people today, who some say seem to spend

more time staring at their cellphones than carrying on a conversation.

“They talk less, but they ask serious questions,” Marczak said.  “They have little time for

fluff and do not like when the younger students goof around.  They are not necessarily more

studious, but often this is because family life does not allow them that luxury.”

Despite the obstacles that non-traditional students face, faculty appreciate their

contributions to a class.

“In my experience I have found them to be very focused and goal driven students,” said

Darren Mattone, instructor of biology. “Not sure you can make a blanket comparison to

traditional aged students since there are many traditional aged students who are very focused and

goal orientated.”


Matt Bowen

Matt Bowen
Matt Bowen

Matthew Bowen is a non-traditional student who attended college after graduating from

Oakridge High School several years ago. His reason for dropping out of MCC was quite different

from the other non-traditional students.

“I was going to school for psychology and about a month into my second semester, my

varsity basketball coach, the late great Coach Stine, invited me to his open gyms,” Bowen said.

“I had to decide between basketball and going to class. I went out and bought new basketball

shoes that day.”

Bowen said he left school each time for the same reason he went back – to take care of

his family.

“I’ve actually been back several times since getting married and having kids,” he said.

“As a dad and husband it is not even a decision to sacrifice personal goals for getting to work

and taking care of them. That often meant delaying classes and taking on a new job or more

work. Day classes work right now because I work a weekend shift at Howmet and I can attend

classes while my kids are in school.”

Sometimes life’s lessons can benefit older students returning to college.

“I have an advantage over most younger students in my work ethic,” Bowen said. “Some

may get defensive reading that statement, as I would have 20 years ago, but I understand the

importance of things like reading the assigned chapter before the lecture and taking good notes.

Little things like that really make the classroom more enjoyable and I didn’t have that mindset

before. The obvious disadvantage is having all the time, bills, and responsibilities that go with

creating and maintaining a family.”

Bowen encourages younger students to do their best.

“If I see someone who struggles I think, ‘Good for you for fighting for yourself,’ “ he

said, “and if he or she is in my class I may offer some advice and encouragement. I often tell

them my experience and past struggles with college and the strength it takes to finish. Finishing

is the biggest hurdle.”

Bowen credits his family with his work ethic and success in school.

“My wife and kids are my life,” he said. “I do a lot for them – coaching baseball, serving

on the league board, running with my daughter, etc. But it is not too much of a challenge for me

to get my education because I have an amazing wife who supports and encourages me. I

wouldn’t be here without her. She went to school for five years to get her engineering degree

while she worked fulltime and had two babies three years apart (mid semester both kids) and

didn’t miss a full week of class. She showed me what real work ethic and passion for a better

future really is.”

Like many non-traditional students, Bowen has a real thirst for knowledge.

“I love to learn now more than ever,” he said. “More importantly, I want to learn to

succeed more than before, and I have 20 years of life’s lessons that have changed my approach to



Robert Parker

Robert Parker

Robert Parker began his academic journey 15 years ago at Delta College in Saginaw.

One-and- a-half years into his schooling he was offered a good paying job at a prison in Ohio,

and he left college to work there.

Parker had always intended on finishing his degree, but first work happened, then his

grandmother got ill, so he took family medical leave from his job to take care of her. Unsure

how much longer she had, and wanting to be there for her until the end, he wound up quitting

that job.

After his grandmother died, again Parker was thinking of finishing his degree, but then he

landed a good-paying job as a sanitation engineer, and opted to work instead of completing his

associate degree. Parker got hurt at work, and he decided it was finally time to go back to school,

get his degree and land a less physically demanding job.

“My wife is working on a master’s and I haven’t completed an associate’s,” he said.

Parker said that once he receives his associate degree he is planning to continue on for his

bachelor’s degree.

“Associate’s is the new GED,” said Parker. “Bachelor’s is the new high school


Parker is doing this to be able to get another decent-paying job. Originally from the east

side of Michigan, he noted, “Jobs have gone from North to South.”

Parker said that his life has been full of challenges. He is proud of his wife’s educational

accomplishments, and is striving to catch up to her someday.

“Life is nothing but changing and re-arranging, and the day you can’t change you might

as well dig a hole and bury yourself,” said Parker.


Cheryl Gaultney

Cheryl Gaultney

Cheryl Gaultney is a non-traditional student who attended college fresh out of high

school and realized that some people are ready to continue their education upon graduation. She

admitted it didn’t work out well for her.

Now, as a returning student she feels she is learning more than she did when she was


“I’m a little more focused and understand the importance better,” she said.

Gaultney came back to school after her two children were grown, and now she has the

time to finish her degree.

“I’m only a few classes from an associate degree in early childhood education,” she said.

“I’m planning on transferring to Grand Valley in the fall.”

Attending any type of school later in life can have pros and cons as any non-traditional

student will attest to.

“The advantages are the extra knowledge,” Gaultney said. “The disadvantages are

remembering the content.”

There are distinct advantages in one’s children being grown, not having to worry about a

babysitter, and not having to schedule classes while they are in school. Or even worry about who

will be there when the children get off the bus. Some older students even have the luxury of

being retired, or financially set so they don’t have to work while going to college.

“All the students I see take it (school) pretty seriously,” she said, adding, “Well, maybe

not the ones in the Student Union.”

She has some advice for younger students:

“Stay in school. Finish your degree while you are younger.”

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