It Sucks Being a "Nontraditional Student." Gates Wants To Make It a Little Easier

Going to college to pursue a two- or four-year degree is already a challenging endeavor, what with high tuition costs—often financed with loans—combined with years of study and the anxiety about finding a well-paying job after graduation. For nontraditional students, who are often older and balancing work and family obligations as well as school, the prospect is even more daunting.

Fortunately, in the era of online courses offered by traditional higher education institutions and MOOC providers such as Coursera, there are alternatives to traditional, classroom-based courses that can make it easier to complete postsecondary credentials. A new grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation may make it even easier for these learners to earn college credits and complete degrees. Gates just awarded $1.86 million to the American Council on Education for an alternative credit project designed to make it easier for nontraditional students to earn degrees.

Now, "nontraditional student" is one of those terms that lacks a precise definition. However, the National Center for Education Statistics suggests that age and part-time student status are factors. An NCES study suggests that nontraditional students generally have at least one of the following characteristics:

  • They delay college enrollment rather than starting the same year they finished high school
  • They attend school part-time
  • They work full time while in college
  • They have children or other dependents
  • They are financially independent for purposes of financial aid (they do not live with their parents, in other words)
  • They are single parents

By these standards, the majority of undergraduates could be considered nontraditional, according to NCES. Of course, students meeting more than one of these criteria face more obstacles to college completion than those meeting only one. Regardless, a large pool of today's learners stand to benefit from the alternative credit accumulation system envisioned by NCES and funded by Gates.

ACE plans to create up to 100 low- or no-cost online courses across 20 to 30 subject areas. Up to 40 different colleges and universities would agree to accept transfer credit for these courses and allow students to enroll with up to two years of credit toward a four-year degree. In addition, the participating institutions would track the success rates of these students to gauge the success of the endeavor.

The alternative credit project will initially target an estimated 31 million U.S. adults who have completed some college coursework but lack a degree, according to ACE. Gates and ACE hope that the work will make it possible for more U.S. adults to complete the educational credentials needed to fill the types of jobs being created in an increasingly technologically driven, knowledge-based economy.

With the recognized need for a more educated workforce, coupled with the concern about rising tuition costs and student debt burdens, this Gates-funded initiative appears to address both issues by facilitating the completion of college credits for a reduced price tag. And it's just one thing happening in the wild new frontier of expanding low-cost college access.

If your nonprofit is operating in this space, you're in the right place at the right time. If you aren't working here, but could be, it's a safe bet that resources will keep flowing from Gates and other funders.