What the Data Shows

NCES’ brief pulls from Web Tables of nationally representative data from the NCES Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS) that provides statistics on nontraditional characteristics in U.S. undergraduates.

According to the brief, the estimates presented in these Web Tables are based on data from five administrations of the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS): NPSAS:96, NPSAS:2000, NPSAS:04, NPSAS:08, and NPSAS:12. “These studies, conducted by the U.S. Department of Education’s NCES, are comprehensive, nationally representative surveys of how students finance their postsecondary education. NPSAS also includes a broad array of demographic and enrollment characteristics.”

Examining trends over time, the data shows the distribution of undergraduates by number of nontraditional characteristics possessed and specific nontraditional characteristics during multiple time periods. For U.S. students [excluding Puerto Rico] applying for financial aid between 2011-12):

  • 31 percent of all students have 2-3 nontraditional characteristics. Only 26 percent had no nontraditional characteristics.
  • 27 percent of all students have dependents
  • 34 percent delay postsecondary enrollment by one year or more
  • Attendance was almost split evenly: 57 percent attend full-time, while 43 percent attend exclusively part-time
  • 26 percent work full-time while enrolled, and 36 percent work part-time

The data further examines individual characteristics used to define nontraditional students by demographic and enrollment characteristics. Of the U.S. students applying for financial aid:

  • There was no statistically significant different between the percentage of independent (usually 24 years or older) and dependent (usually 18-23 years old) students, 51 percent to 49 percent, respectively.
  • Independents often choose public 2-year institutions, for-profit 4-year, or for-profit less-than-2-year. Most dependents choose public 4-year or private nonprofit 4-year.
  • Students with dependents (27 percent of all applicants) also tend to enroll in for-profit 4-year or for-profit less-than-2-year institutions, as well as work full-time rather than part-time or not at all. They also tend to enroll exclusively part-time.
  • Students without dependents (72 percent) tend to have a parent that had a bachelor’s degree or higher. They also tend to complete high school or receive a GED or other equivalency.

The data also documents various characteristics related to undergraduates’ academic preparation, postsecondary enrollment characteristics, participation in online courses and online degree program, type of degree program pursued and reasons for taking courses if not in a degree program, fields of study chosen by type of student, and more. The data reveals that of the U.S. students applying for financial aid:

  • The higher the GPA, the less wait to go to college after secondary graduation: 40.8 percent of students with a GPA of 3.5 or higher entered postsecondary education within 0-12 months, compared to 10.9 percent of students with less than a 2.5 GPA.
  • Those who waited 13 or more months were also more likely to not have taken any higher-level mathematics courses than students who didn’t wait.
  • GPA does not seem to have much effect on full-time vs part-time enrollment: 42.1 percent of students attending full-time have a 3.5 GPA or higher, while 32.8 percent of students exclusively attending part-time have a 3.5 GPA or higher.
  • The more nontraditional characteristics students have, the more likely they are to take an online course. And for students with four or more nontraditional characteristics, 12.4 percent enroll in an all-online degree program—the highest percentage of students who enroll in an all-online degree program.
  • No matter the number of nontraditional characteristics possessed, the majority of all students enroll in postsecondary education to “prepare to earn a degree later” over other options, such as “prepare for job certification or license,” “gain job or occupation skills ,” and “self-improvement.”
  • Among undergrads in a BA degree program, no matter the nontraditional characteristics possessed, the majority of all students always chooses to pursue the study of “business.” However, the percentage of students choosing business over other degree programs increases as the nontraditional characteristics possessed increases.

For much more in-depth data and methodology used, as well as standard errors for each table, analytical explanations, and NCES resources, read the full brief here.

About the Author:

Meris Stansbury

Meris Stansbury is the Editorial Director for both eSchool News and eCampus News, and was formerly the Managing Editor of eCampus News. Before working at eSchool Media, Meris worked as an assistant editor for The World and I, an online curriculum publication. She graduated from Kenyon College in 2006 with a BA in English, and enjoys spending way too much time either reading or cooking.


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