Types of Students

Nine young adults running outdoors towards the camera
A journey of a thousand steps begins with a single step. —Lao Tzu, philosopher

Who Are You As a Student?

Imagine for a moment that you live in the ancient city of Athens, Greece. You are a student at Plato’s University of Athens, considered in modern times to be the first institution of higher learning in the Western world. The campus sits just outside Athens’s city walls, a mile from your home. You walk to class and take your seat in the gymnasium, where all classes are held. Gatherings are small, just a handful of fellow students, most of whom are males born and raised in Athens. When your class is finished, you walk back to the city. Your daily work awaits you—hurry.

Now return to the present time. How does your college environment compare to the university in ancient Athens? Where do you live now, relative to campus? Do you report to a job site before or after class? Who are your fellow students, and where do they live in relationship to you and campus? What city or country are they from?

If you indulge these imaginative comparisons, you may find many similarities in the past and the present. You may find many differences, too. Perhaps the most striking difference will be the makeup of each student body. Consider the following facts:

  • In fall 2015, 20.2 million students attended American colleges and universities. That was almost 5 million more students than enrolled in fall 2000.
  • Of the 20.2 million U.S. college students, about 17.3 million are undergraduates; about 3.0 million are in graduate programs.[1]
  • Almost half of all undergraduates (46 percent) are community college students.[2]
  • During the 2015–16 school year, colleges and universities are expected to award 952,000 associate’s degrees, 1.8 million bachelor’s degrees, 802,000 master’s degrees and 179,000 doctor’s degrees.[3]
  • Females are expected to account for the majority of college students: about 11.5 million females attend in fall 2015, compared with 8.7 million males.
  • More students attend full time than part time (an estimated 12.6 million, compared with about 7.6 million)[4]
  • Nearly 4 out of 5 college students work part-time while studying for their degrees, averaging 19 hours a week.[5]
  • International students now make up about 4 percent of all university students in the U.S., which hosts more of the world’s 4.5 million international students than any other country.[6]

These brief statistics point to the scope of university life in America and the diversity of the student body. Clearly there is no “one size fits all” description of a college student. However, each student bears a responsibility to understand the diverse terrain of his or her peers. Who are the students you may share class with? How have they come to share the college experience with you?

In this section, we look at several main categories of students and at some of the needs of students in those categories. We also take a brief look at how all students, regardless of background, can make a plan to be successful in college.

Categories of Students

You may take classes with students from many walks of life. Which of these categories best describes you?

Traditional Students

Traditional undergraduate students typically enroll in college immediately after graduating from high school, and they attend classes on a continuous full-time basis at least during the fall and spring semesters (or fall, winter, and spring quarters). They complete a bachelor’s degree program in four or five years by the age of twenty-two or twenty-three. Traditional students are also typically financially dependent on others (such as their parents), do not have children, and consider their college career to be their primary responsibility. They may be employed only on a part-time basis, if at all, during the academic year.

Nontraditional Students

Nontraditional students do not enter college in the same calendar year that they finish high school. They typically attend classes part-time due to full-time work obligations. They are more likely to be financially independent, to have children, and/or to be caregivers of sick or elderly family members. Some nontraditional students may not have a high school diploma, or they may have received a general educational development degree (GED).

The following video features several nontraditional students from the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. Students discuss their status as nontraditional students and how they feel about it. Note that the differences are not just with age but also experience. Click on the “cc” box underneath the video to activate the closed captioning.

International Students and/or Nonnative Speakers of English

International students are those who travel to a country different from their own for the purpose of studying in college. English is likely their second language. Nonnative speakers of English, like international students, come from a different culture, too. For both of these groups, college may pose special challenges. For example, classes may at first, or for a time, pose hardships due to cultural and language barriers.

First-Generation College Students

First-generation students do not have a parent who graduated from college with a baccalaureate degree. College life may be less familiar to them, and the preparation for entering college may not have been stressed as a priority at home. Some time and support may be needed to become accustomed to the college environment. These students may experience a culture shift between school life and home life.

Students with Disabilities

Students with disabilities include those who have attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorders, blindness or low vision, brain injuries, deafness/hard-of-hearing, learning disabilities, medical disabilities, physical disabilities, psychiatric disabilities, and speech and language disabilities. Students with disabilities are legally accorded reasonable accommodations that give them an equal opportunity to attain the same level of performance as students without a disability. Even with these accommodations, however, physical and electronic campus facilities and practices can pose special challenges. Time, energy, and added resources may be needed.

Working Students

Many students are employed in either a part-time or full-time capacity. Balancing college life with work life may be a challenge. Time management skills and good organization can help. These students typically have two jobs—being a student and an employee. It can be a lot to balance.

Commuter Students

While there are many advantages to living on campus, many students choose to live off campus and commute to class. This may be convenient or necessary for students who have a full set of responsibilities in off-campus jobs. It may also suit students who have the option to live at home with parents to avoid room and board fees. Many returning students are commuter students, too, and may come on campus only for classes. At some colleges, like urban and rural schools, commuting to campus may be the only option.

Activity: Student Similarities and Differences


  • Identify similarities and differences among different types of students compared to yourself


  • Think about your favorite class this term and about your fellow students in that class. Make a list of all the similarities with them that you sense, feel, or notice.
  • Then make a list of all the differences between you that you sense, feel, or notice.
  • What do these similarities and differences mean to you?

Characteristics of Successful Students

What does it take to be a truly successful college student? Do you believe you already are or will be successful? What things do you need to embrace to ensure your success?

Below is a list of some important characteristics that impact student success. By answering the questions on a scale of “I usually do” to “I seldom do,” you’ll gain insight into the characteristics you’ve got going for you already and where you might need to build some new habits. Remember, these characteristics aren’t things you’re born with—you have to develop and practice them.

Plan my course load realistically based on my non-college responsibilities?
Know how to get in touch with my adviser?
Schedule my classes at times when I learn best?
Calculate the amount of study time needed per course and schedule it?
Ensure that any computer hardware and software I need for classes is updated and working smoothly?
Know all my passwords for email, courses, financial aid, etc.?
Review my class locations before the first day of class by printing and marking them on a map?
Know how to find the library, testing center, computing center, and writing center before classes begin?
Understand my learning styles and plan to work with them, not against them?
Read and understand the academic honesty policy of the college and any consequences for plagiarism?
Enlist friends and family to support my academic goals and plans, to help keep me on track?
Show up to class?
Participate in class?
Take notes in class?
Review my notes after class, organize them, and add details after I reflect on what I learned?
Stay caught up on class work, and not get behind?
Read the required material before the class?
Start assignments a couple days before they’re due?
Complete assignments?
Complete assignments fully, and answer all parts of the questions?
Turn assignments in on time?
Understand the main ideas, and not just memorize the details?
Get phone numbers from a few students in the class, so I can contact them with questions?
Ask other students for clarification?
Ask other students who have taken the course from my instructor about their teaching style and expectations?
See my instructor during office hours, when needed?
Ask my instructor about the materials taught and assignments when I have questions?
Start reviewing materials and studying for exams, well before the exam date?
Review my old exams, problem sets, and quizzes before the final?
Show my work on homework and exam problems?
Find a study group to work through difficult assignments and study for tests?
Keep all my exams, and review the materials and types of questions?
Get involved in a campus organization?
Find the balance between academics and life outside of class?
Make my education a priority?
Eat nutritious meals?
Get adequate sleep?
Make certain that I’m physically and mentally healthy?
Make certain leisure activities don’t interfere with studying and class?

  1. "Fast Facts." National Center for Educational Statistics. Institute of Education Sciences, n.d. Web. 16 Feb 2016.
  2. "Fast Facts from Our Fact Sheet." American Association of Community Colleges. 2016. Web. 16 Feb 2016.
  3. "Table 318.10." National Center for Educational Statistics. Institute of Education Sciences, n.d. Web. 16 Feb. 2016.
  4. "Table 105.20." National Center for Educational Statistics. Institute of Education Sciences, n.d. Web. 16 Feb. 2016.
  5. Kingkade, Tyler. "Most College Students Work Part-Time Jobs, But Few Pay Their Way Through School: Poll." Huffpost Business. Huffington Post, 7 Aug 2013. Web. 16 Feb 2016.
  6. "Open Doors." Institute of International Education. 2016. Web. 16 Feb 2016.