Different Worlds of Different Students


By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Understand how you may be similar to, and/or different from, other traditional or returning students.
  • Begin addressing some of the unique challenges experienced by students who identify with your particular group(s).

Not all college students are the same, and the world of college is experienced differently by different students. Older studentStudents will answer the following questions in a variety of different ways:

  1. Are you attending college directly from high school or within a year of graduation?
  2. Are you a full-time student?
  3. Is English your first language?
  4. Are you the first person in your family to attend college?
  5. Have you spent most of your life in a country other than the United States?
  6. Are you married or living with a partner? Do you have children?
  7. Do you now or have you worked full time?

When thinking about different “types” of students, be careful to avoid stereotyping. While there are genuine differences among individual students, we must never assume an individual person has certain characteristics simply because he or she is a certain “type” of student. For example, if you answered yes to questions 1 through 3 and no to the other questions, you may be called a “traditional” student. The word “traditional” is used simply because in the past this group of students formed the majority of college students even though, at many colleges, these students are now the minority. On the other hand, if you are older and have worked for some years before returning to school, or if you are an international student or are working and attending classes part time, you might be considered a “nontraditional” student. Again, this term comes from past statistics, even though very many colleges have more “nontraditional” students than “traditional” students.

Every student brings certain advantages to college from their background experience. Every student may also face certain kinds of difficulties. Understanding how your background may impact your preparedness for college can help you make a good start in college.

“Traditional” Students

SONY DSCWe’re putting the quotation marks around the word “traditional,” again, because this group of college students is no longer the majority at many colleges although the term is still sometimes used by educators. Coming directly or almost directly from high school, “traditional” students are used to attending classes, reading textbooks, and studying and thus may find the transition to college easier. Many are single and unattached and have fewer time commitments to others. Although a high percentage do work while in college, the work is typically part time or during the summer and does not have a severe time impact on their studies. As first-year students, they may live on campus and do not lose time to commuting. Typically their housing plan includes meals and otherwise simplifies their living arrangements. In all, many have few responsibilities other than their academic work.

On the other hand, “traditional” students living away from home for the first time may face more psychological and social issues than other student groups. These students are away from family and old friends, perhaps for the first time, and may be facing an incompatible roommate or all sorts of new temptations. Experiencing this sudden new freedom, many students experiment with or develop habits such as poor diet, lack of sleep, inconsistent exercise, substance abuse, or other behaviors that disrupt their academic routine and study habits. Many young students are forced to grow up quickly after arriving at college while others do not adjust to the freedoms of college and end up dropping out in their first year.

Returning Students

College_Prep_Harkness_TableStudents returning to their education are often older, may have worked for a number of years, and may be used to living on their own and being financially and psychologically independent. They are often more mature and have a stronger sense of what they want from college; they may be more goal driven. They may be paying their own way through college and want to get their money’s worth. They may be full-time students but frequently are still working and can take only a part-time course load. They often live off campus, may own a home with a mortgage, and/or have children. Because they have made a very deliberate decision to go to college, returning students are often serious students motivated to do the work. Having spent time in the work world, they may also have developed good problem-solving and decision-making skills as a result of their real-world experience.

On the other hand, returning students may have less time for studying because of work and family commitments. They may feel more stress because of the time and financial requirements of college. Spending less time on campus may contribute to not feeling completely at home in the academic world, especially if they don’t have time for extracurricular and campus activities. Although they may be dedicated and hardworking students, they may also be less patient learning about theory in courses and want all their coursework to relate directly to the real world. Some become frustrated by these challenges and drop out of school.

Commuter Students

TrafficjamMany returning students are commuter students, and it is increasingly common for many young people to continue to live at home or in their own apartment and come to campus only for classes. Commuter students often face the same issues of limited time as returning students, and as a result, it may be difficult to find time to talk with an instructor outside of class, attend activities and events, or persevere when faced with car trouble.

First-Generation Students

The phrase “first-generation student” refers to students who are the first in their families to attend college. These students may be “traditional” students enrolled right after high school or may be returning students. Students whose parents did not attend college may be less familiar with some or all aspects of the college experience and may lack support because their families don’t understand the challenges in getting a college education.

Recent Immigrant and International Students

Many colleges have a significant percentage of students who have recently immigrated to the United States or who are attending college here. What both groups may have in common is coming from a different culture and possibly speaking English as a second language. They may have to make cultural adjustments and accommodations. Language issues are often the most serious obstacle to overcome, especially since so much of college education is based on reading and writing in English. International Student Services and the ESOL Program can provide useful information.

Students with Disabilities

The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits colleges and universities from discriminating on the basis of disabilities and requires them to ensure that both classes and extracurricular activities are accessible to students with disabilities. Accessibility includes physical accessibility to campus buildings and housing as well as accessibility to services and aids necessary for effective communication. Students with disabilities have the right to request any accommodations needed to allow them to succeed in college. For more information or to receive answers to any specific questions, contact the Association on Higher Education And Disability (AHEAD) at http://www.ahead.org or the Office of Services for Students with Disabilities located in 1-231 at Brighton or 5-252 at Damon.

Students Who Are Working

The key issue for working students is often time, especially finding sufficient and effective study time to do well in classes. Since it is very difficult to maintain two full-time schedules for both work and school, one or the other may suffer. Studies show that students who work twenty or more hours a week tend to earn lower grades and have increased risk of dropping out than students who work fewer hours. While balancing school and work is challenging, practicing effective time management, having strong priorities, and organizing your space can help.

Students with Families

8048208297_f63ed50138_mTypically it is returning students who have families of their own although younger students may also have families to care for. Students with children often have different challenges and different priorities than other students. Time may be short, and they have to manage it carefully to avoid falling behind in their studies.  At the same time, parents set a good example for their children and eventually increase the quality of life for their entire family.

Key Takeaways

  • College students vary widely in terms of age, work experience before college, cultural background, family, and other factors that may affect how they learn.
  • Young students just out of high school face a transition involving new freedoms and new situations they may need to master in order to succeed academically.
  • Returning students who work and may also have family responsibilities often have time issues and may feel out of place in the college environment.
  • Other student groups include commuters, first-generation students, immigrant and international students, students with disabilities, and others, each of whom may face additional challenges.
  • These student groups are not mutually exclusive and students may identify with several groups.
  • Regardless of the challenges faced by these different students, effective time management, setting clear priorities, and using study strategies will help them succeed.


Are you a “traditional” or “returning” student? Do you identify with any of the other categories mentioned in this chapter?  What are the benefits and challenges of being a member of those groups?  How are you addressing the challenges faced by your group(s)?