There are two recognized uses for the term professional student. In one sense, a professional student may be a person in school pursuing a degree, usually at a graduate level that leads to a specific profession. For instance people in med school, law school, or those training to be nurses are professional students.
More commonly the term is used in slang to refer to students who continue to stay in school, well beyond the fourth year, when most students would be expected to graduate. Instead of moving on to graduate school, professional students may stay at the senior level for a number of years, and may be called superseniors. They generally have not yet graduated, since they have failed to meet one or more graduation requirements.
Such a situation might occur if a student decides to change his or her major in the third or fourth year of college. Changing a major and being accepted to another “school” at a university may mean taking many more classes and training. This could extend the student’s school life for two to three more years. A professional student might take on an extra year of elective courses in order to have greater knowledge in their field.
Sometimes, since college is expensive, people will continue to attend at least halftime so they can defer their student loans. A student who works but still takes two classes a semester can defer many student loans and in some cases accrual of interest. It may be far cheaper to continue to attend college than it is to try paying off huge loans. Of course, if a person continues to get loans while continuing to attend college as a professional student, the problem of repaying loans only snowballs.
The professional student may also take extensive time finishing degree requirements if he or she is trying to fulfill double or triple majors at a school. The junior and senior requirements for each major generally comprise about 70-90% of classes juniors and seniors take, and there simply may not be time to fulfill degree requirements for more than one major in two upper class years. A four-year college degree with several majors might take four to six years of upper class work in order to complete degrees.
Occasionally, the professional student is a person who doesn’t want to leave the university environment. Instead of fulfilling graduation requirements they may take various unrelated classes. They may like the intellectual stimulation of the university setting and not want to leave it for the professional world. This can create problems for universities, since students are expected to move on from college after four to five years of work. Staying in college creates issues for incoming students since it fills up class space for others who are interested in fulfilling their requirements and then moving on.
Some colleges attempt to put a stop to the professional student of the last type by placing time limits on college attendance, or on time allowed in order to graduate. The true master at staying in the university may either switch majors at this point, or switch colleges in order to continue being a professional student.