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Is it time to rethink the term nontraditional student?

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)

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.

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