In the News-Guidebook for the Nontraditional Student and advice from Ray McNulty

In The News

Guidebook for the Nontraditional Student: Dos, Don’ts, and the Secret to Self-Discipline

Online College

Published on
February 4, 2013

Let’s face it. The characteristics of college students are changing. They’re getting older. Many work full time. They have families and other obligations. Some serve in the military. And a lot of them are learning online, which makes the notion of the average college student being an 18- to-22-year-old who lives on campus a tad out of date.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, college enrollment of students ages 25-34 is projected to increase 20% by 2021, while enrollment of students ages 35 years and older is projected to increase by 25% over the same period.

This group of nontraditional students, as they are commonly referred to, is a population of learners who may find it difficult to acclimate to school again. We asked other nontraditional students to share their experiences, mishaps, and things they wish they would’ve known before heading back to school.

Advice from Students

Chris Petrosino: “I wish I knew 20 years ago that it was so easy to pursue a degree at a community college,” said the 56-year-old nursing student who attends Suffolk County Community College. “I was in sales making $100,000 a year without a college degree doing document management before those jobs began getting outsourced to India.”

Petrosino said though he made good money in sales, it wasn’t really fulfilling for him. He liked helping people and was actively involved in several nonprofits. Nursing proved to be a good fit. 

“I want people to know I started college at the age of 53. The online courses and flexible schedule really helps me. I’m able to get a degree from a community college and be a professional.”

Vernetta Freeney: “I wish I had known that I would not still be teaching before I got my graduate degree online.”

Freeney was working full time as a teacher before she was forced to resign because of budget cuts. She said she didn’t see the career change coming, nor was she prepared for it.

“What I am doing now has nothing to do with education. I host networking events and I blog,” said Freeney, who holds a master’s degree in education administration with a concentration in organizational leadership. “So ultimately my degree that I am still paying for is useless to my current career. My advice to anyone thinking about getting an online degree is to check the school and make sure it’s accredited, and to make sure the degree you are getting can transfer if you ever leave that job or career.”

Simon Tam: “I wish I would’ve known how difficult getting back into statistics or finance classes would be,” said Tam, who’s pursuing an MBA from Marylhurst University with concentrations in marketing and nonprofit management.

Tam dropped out of college the first time around to tour the world in his Asian-American rock band. He’s now back in school full time, working full time, is an author, and still manages to tour with his rock band.

“Whether someone is taking classes online or in-person, it’s important to have a self-discipline regimen. Otherwise, it’s easy to fall behind and not get the most out of your education. … The other part of me is afraid of the increasing debt, so it’s important to pass the classes the first time around. Remember, it’s an investment into the future so students should be taking it very seriously.”

Cindy Wolfe: Wolfe returned to school mid-career, choosing a program that was completely online. Having completed her undergraduate studies in 1980, a master’s degree in 2001, and a doctoral degree from Northcentral University in 2012, she had admitted gaps in her educational path.

“I had to juggle family and two jobs while working on my terminal degree. I received no financial assistance at all, so my decision to pursue a Ph.D. was pretty significant for me and my family. I wish I had known how difficult it was to stay focused on material after working my jobs. Even though I had frustrations and lots of responsibility at work, I still had to come home and morph into a student and hide in my office.” 

She continued: “I forgot how to answer the phone and how to sit on the back porch. I missed a lot of TV shows that I enjoyed prior to my return to school. I got very far behind reading my InStyle magazines, so my wardrobe is stuck somewhere fashion-wise back in 2006. Essentially, the word ‘relax’ and ‘vacation’ disappeared from my vocabulary and was replaced by ‘a paper is due this week…’”

All humor aside, Wolfe said at times she was tempted to quit, and that had it not been for the networking with other students, she might not have completed her studies.

“I joined a study group, and we helped and encouraged one another. Early on, I started to blog to chronicle my journey and to satisfy a need to keep myself focused and my feet on the path. I made an effort to get to know my instructors and fellow students, and gained much personally and professionally in the process.”

Hank Coleman: “To be successful as an online student, you have to have a set schedule and stick to it. You should commit to checking your program’s online chat room every day and responding to questions and discussion topics,” said Coleman, a U.S. Army Major with more than 10 years active duty. Coleman earned his master’s degree in finance from the University of Maryland University College and holds a graduate certificate in personal financial planning. 

“Far too many students think that simply because it is online, they can put their studies off or cram it into a small amount of time at the end of each week. The most successful students treat an online degree in much the same way with respect to their study habits as they would if earning a degree in a brick-or-mortar institution.”

Debra Ann Matthews: “I wish that I had known it was okay to try out some of the latest trends of the traditional college-aged students, such as joining a sorority or fraternity, running for student government, attending campus trips and taking road trips,” said Matthews, who was 33 years old when she completed her Master of Arts in Corporate Communication from Austin Peay State University.

She said it’s important for students to plan and prepare, sharpen their writing skills, look for scholarships and funding, and register with career services the first semester.


“Buy an alum T-shirt. Learn, love, and live as a nontraditional co-ed. Participate in Zumba and mud volleyball and have as much of a full college experience as you can. Date a younger co-ed. Enjoy yourself!”

Ebon Glenn: “I wish I would’ve known that it’s easier to say ‘I’m a doctor’ than actually earning the right to say it,” said Glenn, who’s pursuing his Doctorate in Business Administration at The University of Phoenix.

“I’m vice president of an airport retail business and owner of an airport retail concepts (store). I work 12-hour days while studying with my cohorts online seven days a week in hopes of becoming a doctor in 2014-2015. My weekends are usually filled with article reviews, discussion questions, and substantive posts to my professors and classmates.”

“Plan your week on the weekends, and expect to do nothing but work and study the majority of the time. I find time to have fun with my wife and close friends, but in order to maintain a 3.0, you must be focused.”


Cindy Fuchs: “As a nontraditional student in my 60s pursuing an online master’s degree while working full time, I initially found it tough to work quality study into my hectic everyday activities,” said Fuchs, vice president for administrative services at the Federation of Independent IL Colleges and Universities in Springfield, Ill.

Fuchs managed to complete her associate, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees while maintaining a straight-A average.

“For me, the solution was to carve out a study schedule at the beginning of each week and stick to it. This provided the structure I needed to take full advantage of online learning.”

Kelly Yerington: After losing her job to cutbacks and giving birth to her first child, Yerington decided to return to school at the Computer Systems Institute to study medical billing and coding. She had people ask her why she was pursuing another degree, tell her it was too late for her to return to school, and question how she would pay for it. But she decided to step out on faith.

“I fit the definition of a nontraditional student perfectly! I had previously gained a degree and now I was going back for more. While attending school, I would be working two jobs, taking care of my 9-month-old son, maintaining a house while putting an offer on a new home, maintaining a current 3.5 GPA, participating in extracurricular activities at school, working with my local food pantry, attending church, and the list goes on and on.”

 “The best advice I can give to those who are just beginning their journey onto a higher education is how important it is to utilize the services the school has to offer.

Understanding the tools to use to drive your success is equally as important as knowing the people who are helping drive your success. Also, grow from every opportunity and try not to sweat the small stuff. (Laundry will be there waiting for you, and so will the dusting.) Don’t be afraid to make mistakes or ask questions, because that is how we learn and retain knowledge. Finally, maintain your motivation and focus. We are all driven differently. Keep your end goal in sight and don’t let others tell you what is achievable!”

An Expert’s Advice

The key for nontraditional students, specifically those returning to school after significant time away, is setting S.M.A.R.T. goals, according to Ray McNulty, chief learning officer for Penn Foster College. S.M.A.R.T., he explained, stands for goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound.

“Time management is critical, and it’s all about prioritizing,” McNulty said. “Every individual gets the same amount of time each day, no matter what the situation. Nobody gets any more or less than 24 hours. The key to good time management is having a schedule that helps you plan each day. If you know you have a paper due one week and three soccer games with your children, block out those times you will be busy and prioritize the rest.”

McNulty stressed that students need to know their study habits, including how they like to learn and what time of the day they are most productive.

“For example, I know that I am a morning person and work most efficiently during that time period,” he said. “After students have established their most productive times, they should block those out to do the most challenging parts of their work.”

McNulty said it’s also extremely important for students, especially those raising families, to tell other people — a spouse, children, etc. — about their responsibilities and the time they’ll need to focus on their studies.

“Your family is going to be a much-needed support system,” he said.

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