Nontraditional Undergraduates / Highlights
This report uses data from the three administrations of the National
Postsecondary Student Aid Study conducted in 1986-87, 1989-90,
and 1992-93 (NPSAS:87, NPSAS:90, and NPSAS:93) to examine enrollment
trends of nontraditional students. It then uses data from the
Beginning Postsecondary Students (BPS:90/94) longitudinal survey
to explore the persistence and attainment of nontraditional students
who first began their postsecondary education in 1989-90.
A nontraditional student was identified by the presence of one
or more of the following seven characteristics: delayed enrollment
into postsecondary education, attended part time, financially
independent, worked full time while enrolled, had dependents other
than a spouse, was a single parent, or did not obtain a standard
high school diploma.
A nontraditional student was further characterized as minimally
nontraditional (one characteristic), moderately nontraditional
(2 or 3 characteristics), or highly nontraditional (4 or more
characteristics). The following are selected findings from the
- A majority of undergraduates in all three NPSAS surveys were
at least minimally nontraditional. The trends indicated that the
proportion of moderately nontraditional students (primarily older-than-typical,
attending part time, and financially independent) increased over
time from one in four undergraduates in 1986 to nearly one in
three (31 percent) in 1992. The proportion of highly nontraditional
students, on the other hand, declined from 26 to 23 percent between
1989 and 1992.
- While nontraditional students were concentrated in 2-year
institutions, there was discernible growth in the enrollment of
moderately nontraditional students in 4-year institutions (e.g.,
from 31 percent in 1986 to 39 percent in 1992). This was especially
true for private, not-for-profit, 4-year nondoctoral institutions
where the proportion of moderately nontraditional students rose
from 15 percent in 1986 to 22 percent in 1992.
- With regard to individual nontraditional characteristics,
there was a generally increasing trend in the enrollment of older-than-typical
students (from 54 percent of undergraduates in 1986 to 59 percent
in 1992). Similarly, the proportion attending part time rose from
38 percent to 42 percent for the same time period.
- The proportion of undergraduates who worked full time while
enrolled or had dependents increased between 1986 and 1989, but
then either leveled off or declined between 1989 and 1992. For
example, the percentage of undergraduates who reported having
dependents was 20 percent, 22 percent, and 20 percent, respectively,
for 1986, 1989, and 1992.
- The proportion of undergraduates who were single parents remained
the same over the three time periods (about 7 percent), while
enrollment of students who were recipients of a GED or high school
equivalent certificate declined from 7 percent in 1986 to 4 percent
Persistence and Attainment of Nontraditional Students
- Nontraditional students were much less likely to earn a degree
within 5 years of beginning their postsecondary education, and
far more likely to have left school without returning than were
their traditional counterparts. For example, among undergraduates
with a bachelor's degree objective, about one-third (31 percent)
of nontraditional students had attained a degree within 5 years,
compared with more than half (54 percent) of traditional students.
- Students who were only minimally nontraditional were much
more likely to have earned a bachelor's degree (42 percent) than
were moderately or highly nontraditional students (17 percent
and 11 percent, respectively).
- With regard to timing of departure, nontraditional students
were more than twice as likely to leave school in their first
year than were traditional students (38 percent versus 16 percent).
However, for students who persisted to their second year, nontraditional
students' rates of attrition were much closer to the rates of