Nontraditional Undergraduates / Summary and Conclusions

Summary and Conclusions

The term "nontraditional" as applied to students who do not follow an educational path historically perceived as traditional-enrolling full time in college immediately after graduating from high school-has become a misnomer. A clear majority of undergraduates diverge in some manner from this path whether they begin their postsecondary education later in life, interrupt their education and return, or just take longer to progress due to reduced enrollment intensity.

This analysis attempted to characterize the degree to which undergraduates were nontraditional based on the presence of seven possible nontraditional characteristics. These characteristics included delaying enrollment into postsecondary education, attending part time, being independent from parents, having dependents, working full time while enrolled, being a single parent, or having a GED or high school equivalent certificate.

The enrollment trends over the 6-year period from 1986 to 1992 indicated that the prevalence of moderately nontraditional students (those with two or three nontraditional characteristics) increased over the time period from one in four undergraduates in 1986 to almost one in three in 1992. The proportion of highly nontraditional students (those with four or more characteristics), on the other hand, declined from 26 percent to 23 percent.

The results of this study also revealed differences in the enrollment trends of nontraditional undergraduates according to type of institution. Even though moderately and highly nontraditional students were most numerous in public 2-year institutions, there was discernible growth in the nontraditional student population enrolled in 4-year colleges, especially in private, not-for-profit, nondoctoral institutions. These findings suggest that private 4-year colleges, which have historically attracted traditional students, may be reaching out to a less traditional population to maintain their enrollment levels.

Consistent with the findings of earlier research, this study found that nontraditional students, even those who are minimally nontraditional, do not persist in postsecondary education as well as traditional students. For example, one in three minimally nontraditional students left school without a credential, compared with one in five traditional students.

An important consideration when designing and implementing programs to reduce attrition among nontraditional students is to determine when these students leave postsecondary education. Nontraditional students are highly likely to leave in their first year of postsecondary education. However, evidence from this study suggests that the gap in attrition between nontraditional and traditional students closes considerably from the second year on. Thus, it seems crucial that programs aimed at reducing nontraditional attrition rates be implemented from the very start of a student's enrollment in postsecondary education.

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