The following is an excerpt from a column by University of Illinois Springfield Chancellor Susan Koch. This column appeared in The State Journal-Register on December 10, 2016.
"If you picture the average college student as someone 18-22 years old who lives on campus, attends classes during the day and whose life includes an array of campus social activities - you may need to adjust your thinking.
Adult learners, sometimes referred to as "nontraditional students," have been a growing presence on college campuses for several years.
That is certainly true at the University of Illinois Springfield, where, at the same time the number of traditional-aged students is growing, almost 41 percent of UIS undergraduate students this year are over the age of 24.
And age is only part of the story.
The National Center for Education Statistics has identified several interrelated characteristics that are common among nontraditional undergraduates.
Besides age, these students often did not start college immediately after high school, attend school part-time while also working, are not financially supported by their parents, may have children or other dependents and are more likely to be a single parent.
Adults start or return to college for a variety of good reasons - most seeing a college degree as a long-term investment that will improve their professional credentials, provide better career opportunities and enhance their overall quality of life.
Ashti Dawson, a 35-year-old senior majoring in psychology, is one such student.
A foster child from a young age, Ashti decided the military was her best financial option after high school. Eventually, a promotion in the National Guard brought her and her young daughter to Springfield. She earned an associate degree from Lincoln Land Community College before enrolling at UIS.
"With school, work and parenting obligations, there's a lot of responsibility and financial challenges," says Ashti, "but I always feel like I have been determined and persistent. ... and I love the psychology department." In addition to being a full-time student, Ashti is president of the Military and Veteran Club on campus.
Many classes at UIS today include both traditional-aged and adult learners, and faculty greatly value the diversity that mix provides.
According to Marcel Yoder, an associate professor in psychology, "Nontraditional students bring life experiences to class discussions that provide unique and powerful examples of the ways specific course concepts are illustrated in the world - points of view that would not otherwise be heard."
Assistant professor of communication Ann Strahle has also taught many nontraditional students.
"I've found these students often face multiple challenges," she says, "but the vast majority rise to the challenges and excel in the classroom.
Nontraditional students tend to be well organized and focused and are already excellent multitaskers - considering the other responsibilities in their lives."
Being able to take some or even all coursework online is particularly helpful to nontraditional students, who tend be balancing myriad other responsibilities.
According to Vickie Cook, director of the Center for Online Learning, Research and Service, about 1,500 students are pursuing their degrees online at UIS this year, which allows them to schedule time to study and participate in coursework based on their individual schedules.
"Our faculty design online courses that engage students and promote a learning community," says Cook, "and online program coordinators provide sustained support and services to ensure a positive learning experience, and ultimately, program completion."
Looking at the trending demographics of today's college student body, nontraditional may, in fact, become the new traditional.
Whatever those trends, the Springfield campus is strengthened by the presence of both traditional and nontraditional students, and we'll continue to adopt practices and resources that help all students to succeed regardless of their age."
Read the entire column online.