When Karen Wingett was a senior at a Florida high school, her guidance counselor told her ''she wasn't college material.'' After graduation she married and worked as a dental assistant.
Eventually she wound up in New England, divorced and in need of a job. A good job. To her that meant college.
Marshaling her resources, she gained admission to a community college on Cape Cod and later to Boston University, where she's still studying. Despite the pressure of working and supporting a 12-year-old son, she has made the dean's list every semester.
Ms. Wingett is one of a growing number of ''nontraditional students,'' the term colleges and universities use to describe a type of student they are increasingly trying to woo: those not in the traditional 18- to 21-year-old age bracket.
In the past such students were sometimes seen as a risk and given scant attention, according to admissions officers. But changing demographics and tight budgets are changing those attitudes. With the pool of available high school seniors shrinking and with budgets pinched at many schools, the hunt is on to fill classrooms and dorm rooms.
This, combined with a growing number of workers in need of retraining, professionals seeking career changes, and homemakers wanting to enter or reenter the job market, has led to a surge of nontraditional students.
''There certainly is a growing number of adults returning to attend college on a full-time basis,'' says Pat Koch Thaler, director of the office of special programs in the school of continuing education at New York University. ''The trend has kind of crept up on college administrators, but now there is active recruitment of adults.''
''The older students we're seeing are highly motivated,'' says Betty Trachtenberg, director of admissions for Special Students Programs at Yale University. ''Their personal reasons for coming vary, but their objectives are the same - starting or furthering a career.''
In the past 10 years, the number of college students over 24 years of age increased by more than 50 percent, to 4 million. At urban universities alone, the average age of a student is now 27; 10 years ago it was 21, according to Evelyn Davila, director of urban studies at the Washington, D.C., office of the Educational Testing Service.
The figures do not include those enrolled in adult and continuing education programs, which constitute a separate category. The growth in numbers of nontraditional students has led to a parallel increase in programs to serve them. They include:
* Reserving places for nontraditional students at state colleges and universities through legislative initiative. At least two states - New Jersey and Florida - already have such laws, and a third, Connecticut, is studying the idea. The Connecticut plan would set aside 20 percent of the slots in each entering class for nontraditional students and waive some admissions requirements.
* Special degree programs that allow students to vary courses and course loads. For instance, Yale University launched its new Bachelor of Liberal Studies program last fall. It requires candidates to fulfill the same undergraduate requirements as other Yale students but allows them up to seven years to do it. The program is made up of 28 students from ages 22 to 64, and includes a train conductor, an orthodontist who never completed his undergraduate work because of World War II, and a 59-year-old partner in several oil companies.
* Joint recruiting efforts, like one in the Philadelphia area in which 38 colleges and universities banded together in a consortium called Compact for Lifelong Educational Opportunities. Its purpose is to attract older people to the schools.
For the most part, however, there is little need to adapt programs especially for nontraditional students. Being older and generally more mature, nontraditional students are willing and able to fit into a college's existing structure and curriculum without the need for special attention, educators say.
One of the few problems for nontraditional students is the lack of available scholarships. Nontraditional students complain that many scholarships are based on high school academic records, which for them are outdated and do not take into account what they've learned on the job.