Is it time to rethink the term nontraditional student?

By Meris Stansbury
September 30th, 2016

NCES data shows that institutions have been scrambling to accommodate massive numbers of nontraditional students.


Should higher education rethink what makes a “traditional” student today? Data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) on students applying for financial aid highlight the ever-increasing need for colleges and universities to diversify their programs and make more available online education.

The data, culled from the most recent student financial aid information (2011-12), and discussed in the NCES brief, “Demographic and Enrollment Characteristics of Nontraditional Undergraduates,” examines prevailing characteristics in enrolling students, and argues that knowledge of these characteristics should further urge institutions to diversify their services.

The brief begins by differentiating traditional and nontraditional terms as researchers do, explaining that nontraditional students have the following characteristics:

  • Independent of parents for financial aid reasons
  • Having one or more dependents
  • Being a single caregiver
  • Not having a traditional high school diploma
  • Delaying postsecondary enrollment
  • Attending school part time
  • Being employed full time

“While undergraduates who possess these characteristics are often thought of as nontraditional, a large proportion of undergraduates have these characteristics,” state the brief’s authors (Dr. Alexandria Walton Radford, program director of Transition to College for RTI International; RTI Project Director, Melissa Cominole; and Paul Skomsvold education analyst III of RTI). According to NCES data, about 74 percent of all 2011-12 undergrads had at least one nontraditional characteristic.

It’s also a percentage that has remained either consistent, or on the rise, since 1995-96 when at least 70 percent of undergrads possessed at least one nontraditional characteristic.

“Examining nontraditional characteristics is important not only because a high percentage of postsecondary students possess them, but also because students with these characteristics can be vulnerable to challenges that can affect their well-being, levels of stress and satisfaction, and likelihood of persisting and attaining a degree,” notes the brief.

With so many students considered nontraditional by these research standards, not only could the definition of a traditional student be outdated, but technology-supported online programs, flexible degree programs, credentialing and badging, and the reinvention of the credit hour may help increase institutional enrollment and curb dropouts or transfers of these more at-risk students.

(Next page: What the data shows on nontraditional students)

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