Today’s undergraduate population is different than it was a generation ago. In addition to being 72 percent larger in 1999 than in 1970 (with fall enrollment growing from 7.4 to 12.7 million), proportionately more students are enrolled part time (39 versus 28 percent) and at 2-year colleges (44 versus 31 percent), and women have replaced men as the majority (representing 56 percent of the total instead of 42 percent) (NCES 2002-025, indicator 5). There are proportionately more older students on campus as well: 39 percent of all postsecondary students were 25 years or older in 1999, compared with 28 percent in 1970 (U.S. Department of Education 2002b).
The "traditional" undergraduate—characterized here as one who earns a high school diploma, enrolls full time immediately after finishing high school, depends on parents for financial support, and either does not work during the school year or works part time—is the exception rather than the rule. In 1999–2000, just 27 percent of undergraduates met all of these criteria.1 Thus, 73 percent of all undergraduates were in some way "nontraditional."2 Comparable data for a generation ago are not available, but the fact that much of the change in demographic characteristics and enrollment patterns described above occurred in the 1970s (U.S. Department of Education 2002b) suggests that this is not a recent phenomenon.
While traditional undergraduates are generally able to direct most of their energy toward their studies, older students, parents (especially single parents), and students who work full time have family and work responsibilities competing with school for their time, energy, and financial resources. Difficulties in obtaining child care and class schedules that do not mesh with work schedules are just two of the barriers that nontraditional students may encounter. In addition, some of the older students who did not pursue a postsecondary education when they were younger may have made this decision because they were not prepared academically. Consequently, they may struggle when they enroll later. Nontraditional students who enter postsecondary education seeking a degree are, in fact, less likely than traditional students to attain a degree or remain enrolled after 5 years (Horn 1996). To design effective programs and services to help nontraditional students reach their degree goals, policymakers and postsecondary administrators need information on how many students are affected, the details of their enrollment patterns, and the nature of their persistence problems.
The first part of this discussion of nontraditional students uses the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS:2000) to describe their demographic characteristics, enrollment patterns, how they combine school and work, and their participation in distance education. The second part examines the relationship between nontraditional status and persistence using the Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Studies (BPS), which followed cohorts of students enrolling in postsecondary education for the first time in 1989–90 and in 1995–96. Unless a specific type of institution is specified, the data refer to students at all types of postsecondary institutions (less-than-2-year, 2-year, and 4-year).
1This includes undergraduates at all types of postsecondary institutions (less-than-2-year, 2-year, and 4-year). (back to text)
2U.S. Department of Education, NCES. National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS:2000). (back to text)