When one thinks of college students, the image which probably comes to mind first is one of a young freshman, living away from parents or guardians for the first time, ready to taste freedom.
But more than one-fifth of University of Wyoming students lead very different lives. Recognized recently by the Chronicle of Higher Education for having one of the highest percentages of older undergraduates for flagship institutions across the United States, UW’s student body skews older than most.
One such non-traditional student is Alex Gunter. At 17 years old, he enlisted with the Air Force and went active duty for five years. He came to UW after separating from the military, starting on his degree while many of his high school classmates were finishing their own.
His non-traditional student experience is vastly different from the experience of a younger student.
“New students get to really discover themselves for the first time,” he said. “Non-trads are basically just here to get their education. Yeah, (there’s) a little bit of self-discovery, but mostly we kind of already know what we want and we want to make money.”
UW welcomed possibly its largest ever freshman class during the fall 2017 semester — a total of 1,696 students — who join the undergraduate student body that accounts for a majority of UW’s students.
Many activities and services hosted and offered through the university are geared toward these traditional students.
“I wouldn’t say we miss out on a lot,” Gunter said. “I think the major disadvantage is the social aspect … Incoming freshmen — because they’re an easy target — everything’s new and exciting for them. They get to rush fraternities and sororities.
Non-traditional students can do that as well. It’s just because we’re older, we typically don’t want to.”
UW ranked fifth among flagship institutions for its percentage — 21.7 percent — of undergraduates 25 years-old and older. But students who are married, have children or dependents, or have deceased parents are also considered non-traditional. Students who are veterans, wards of the state or staff members taking classes part-time count as well.
Additionally, UW’s more than 2,000 graduate students are also considered non-traditional.
“They have their own lives outside of school, so really trying to plan with a lot of non-traditional students is very tough because most of them, by now, are incredibly goal-driven,” Gunter said. “They have their own lives, and saying that we’re going to have a pizza party and a dance party in the Union does not appeal to non-trads the way it would to new students.”
Attending community college in California while fighting fires in the summer to fund school, Tyler Dowdy spent four years as an off-and-on student, earning an associate’s degree. After another four years of working for a lumber mill, Dowdy decided to return to school for a bachelor’s in rangeland ecology and watershed management.
He chose UW and, after a period of adjustment, got back into an academic groove.
“In that time, your mindset kind of changes,” he said. “You’re a little more mature, I guess, but I forgot how difficult it was to study and I had to relearn all my study habits and how to make things work for me to succeed. So, it took about half a semester to kind of remember how to do everything, and then I pretty much played catch-up.”
Like Gunter, Dowdy said his goals as a non-traditional student are focused.
“When you first get into college, there’s all the extracurricular stuff that goes on,” he said. “(Now), it’s more just about getting this done so I can kind of advance where I’m at.”
While many universities have a sizeable non-traditional population, the Chronicle of Higher Education ranking shows UW attracts more than its fair share. For Dowdy, the relative rurality of Albany County was a major draw.
“I really like the area — it reminds me of my hometown,” he said. “It’s got all the big things, like the Wal-Mart and the stuff you need, but it’s not overwhelmingly large.”
Gunter said he suspects many non-traditionals choose UW over other schools because of its low price and because of Laramie’s walkability and wide range of housing options.
“The tuition is super affordable comparatively,” he said. “For a lot of students who may not even be from Wyoming, it has a huge appeal because tuition rates at the University of Wyoming are so cheap compared to everybody else and the education is high quality.”
UW was ranked 12th “most innovative college for adult learners” by Washington Monthly in 2017. An article by Associate Editor Joshua Alvarez cites the existence of a non-traditional student center and of a non-traditional student council — two resources available to students such as Gunter and Dowdy — as points in UW’s favor.
“University of Wyoming is a repeat top-twenty school for adult learners in our rankings,” Alvarez writes. “It stands out for its affordability (ranked second overall among four-year schools), its high loan repayment rate (73 percent), and its services for adults, who make up nearly a third of the student body.”
Older students might not be the target of most campus activities, but they don’t need to be, Gunter said.
“I think college is a big time for self-discovery, it’s a big time for fun,” he said. “And I think typically, there’s a lot less responsibility for incoming freshmen and young students … I came to school from the military, so I already had a purpose, I kind of already know what I want to do.”