Definition of Nontraditional Students
The term "nontraditional student" is not a precise one, although age and part-time status (which often go together) are common defining characteristics (Bean and Metzner 1985). An NCES study examining the relationship between nontraditional status and persistence in postsecondary education identified nontraditional students using information on their enrollment patterns, financial dependency status, family situation, and high school graduation status (Horn 1996). Specifically, in this study, a nontraditional student is one who has any of the following characteristics:
Horn (1996) defined "nontraditional" on a continuum based on the number of these characteristics present. Students are considered to be "minimally nontraditional" if they have only one nontraditional characteristic, "moderately nontraditional" if they have two or three, and "highly nontraditional" if they have four or more.
As indicated earlier, 73 percent of all undergraduates in 1999–2000 had one or more of these characteristics. Figure 1 shows the percentage of undergraduates with each nontraditional characteristic. In 1999–2000, financial independence was the most common nontraditional characteristic (51 percent), followed by part-time attendance (48 percent), and then delayed enrollment (46 percent).
In 1999–2000, 27 percent of all undergraduates were traditional, and 28 percent were highly nontraditional (table 1). Another 28 percent were moderately nontraditional and 17 percent were minimally nontraditional. The character of the undergraduate population varied markedly by type of institution. Public 2-year and private for-profit institutions have much larger proportions of moderately and highly nontraditional students than 4-year institutions, and much smaller proportions of traditional students. At both public 2-year and private for-profit institutions, 89 percent of the students were at least minimally nontraditional, compared with 58 percent at public 4-year institutions and 50 percent at private not-for-profit 4-year institutions.
Between 1992–93 and 1999–2000, the percentages of students who delayed enrollment, worked full time, had dependents, and were single parents all increased (figure 1). The percentage of undergraduates attending part time decreased, a trend that is projected to continue.4 There were no measurable changes between the 2 years in the percentages who were financially independent or did not have a high school diploma.
3Undergraduates are normally considered financially
dependent unless they are 24 years or older, married, a veteran, have dependents
of their own other than a spouse, or are an orphan or ward of the court.
(back to text)
4The numbers of both full- and part-time students are projected to increase over the next decade, but full-time enrollment is expected to grow at a faster rate (indicator 5, NCES 2002-025). (back to text)
Figures and Tables
Figure 1: Percentage of undergraduates with nontraditional
characteristics: 1992–93 and 1999–2000
Table 1: Percentage distribution
of undergraduates according to their student status, by type of institution: 1999–2000
Table FS1: Standard errors
for the percentage of undergraduates with nontraditional characteristics: 1992–93
Table S1: Standard errors for the percentage distribution of undergraduates according to their student status, by type of institution: 1999–2000