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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 study.

Enrollment Trends

  • 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 in 1992.

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 traditional students.

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National Center for Education Statistics -
U.S. Department of Education