Categories of Students

Learning Objectives

  • Identify different categories of students as well as similarities and differences among students

Who Are You As a Student?

decorative imageImagine 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]
  • Women are expected to account for the majority of college students: about 11.5 million women attend in fall 2015, compared with 8.7 million men.
  • 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 have received a general educational development degree (GED) instead of a high school diploma.

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.

You can view the transcript for “Non-Traditional Students at W&M” here (opens in new window).

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.


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  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.