Steve Reiher, assistant professor of public relations, Utah State University

The typical image of an unmarried, 18-to-22-year-old college student is giving way to a new reality. At Utah State University, a large and growing percentage of students are non-traditional students — older in age, with professional work experience and more likely married and/or with children. Their situations often differ from their younger classmates, bringing their own challenges and opportunities.

Audrey Tablon, an MBA student in the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business at USU, is a single mom who works full time at the Space Dynamics Laboratory. She has been working for 20 years.

“The decision to pursue a business degree was not difficult; it seemed like an obvious choice to advance my education and career,” Audrey said. “My bachelor’s degree is in political science, but I have worked as a business professional for almost 20 years. I felt that a business degree would legitimize my practical experience both within my current organization and to potential external employers. And it’s been valuable already — I’ve found that every class I have taken in the MBA program has had applicability to the work I am doing at the Lab.”

Audrey’s decision to return to school after working for several years is becoming increasingly more common. In fact, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, more than 40 percent of all U.S. college and graduate students are 25 and older, while about 18 percent of those students are 35 years of age and older. All signs indicate that these numbers will continue to grow.

Non-traditional students go back to school for a number of reasons. Some have an interest in starting a business. Other students seek to make a major career change, hoping to find better pay, increased job security, better long-term job prospects or increased personal satisfaction. Still, other returning students go back to school to improve their career prospects with their current employers.

“Students who are returning to school after gaining real-world experiences and/or increased family responsibilities have a greater understanding of education and the significant influence that education can have on both personal and professional life,” Chad Albrecht, PhD, director of the MBA program at the Huntsman School said.

“I love having non-traditional students in the classroom,” Eric Schulz, who teaches marketing at the Huntsman School, said. “They bring a diversity of thought and life experience — both personally and professionally — that add a richness to the course discussions. Most non-traditional students have jobs and families in addition to going to school. They know time management and are able to balance work/home/life.”

Students agree. “I definitely think being a non-traditional student has advantages over traditional students, and in that way, I’m really grateful that I experienced a real-world business environment before I entered the program,” Audrey said. “A lot of what makes a business work you can’t learn from a book. I find myself making notes of experiences I have had where principles we are being taught would have applied or where I can apply things practically right now.”