Skip Navigation

Nontraditional Undergraduates / Introduction


The traditional path to a college degree, broadly defined as enrolling in college immediately after high school and attending full time until graduation, has become the exception rather than the rule. In 1992-93, for instance, although slightly more than half of undergraduates (57 percent) had enrolled in postsecondary education immediately after high school graduation, only about one-third attended full time for the full 1992-93 academic year.[1]

[1] L. Horn and M. Premo, Profile of Undergraduates in U.S. Postsecondary Education Institutions: 1992-93 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 1995). Statistics in this report are based on data from the 1992-93 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS:93).

In a recent report profiling undergraduates enrolled in U.S. postsecondary institutions in 1992-93, undergraduates were characterized according to a number of attributes commonly associated with nontraditional students.[2] These included nontraditional enrollment choices such as delaying enrollment or attending part time, and characteristics associated with financial constraints and family responsibilities such as being financially independent, having dependents to support, or working full time while enrolled. These characteristics, all of which have the potential to increase the risk of attrition, were referred to as risk factors in this study.

[2] Ibid, 3.

The results indicated that a clear majority (three-fourths) of undergraduates were affected by at least one of the risk factors, and that students at risk were concentrated in the 2-year sector (primarily public community colleges). In contrast, students with no risk factors (i.e., traditional students) were almost exclusively enrolled in 4-year colleges and universities.[3]

[3] Ibid, 64.

According to the same study, slightly more than half of all undergraduates were enrolled part time at some point during the academic year (54 percent), and about the same percentage (52 percent) reported being financially independent (according to federal student financial aid regulations). About 43 percent of undergraduates had delayed their enrollment after high school, and about one-third worked full time at some time during their enrollment. Although being responsible for dependents was less common, fully one-fifth of undergraduates were parents.[4]

[4] Ibid, 4.

In a recent analysis, Berkner et al. examined the persistence and attainment of undergraduates 5 years after their first enrollment (in 1989-90).[5] Using the same risk factors as those identified in the undergraduate profile,[6] the analysis revealed that an increase in the number of risk factors was accompanied by a decline in persistence and attainment rates. This was true for undergraduates in both the 2-year and 4-year sectors. According to this study, students with no risk factors were almost twice as likely to have attained a degree or to still be enrolled at the end of the 5-year period than were students with three or more risk factors. On the other hand, this analysis also found that the presence of risk factors had little influence on the persistence and attainment of students attending less-than-2-year vocational institutions.

[5] L. Berkner, S. Cuccaro-Alamin, and A. McCormick, Descriptive Summary of 1989-90 Beginning Postsecondary Students: Five Years Later (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, , 1996).
[6] Horn and Premo, Profile of Undergraduates in U.S. Postsecondary Education Institutions.

Certainly the changing economy has contributed to the increase in enrollment of students who enter postsecondary education later in life. The decline of the blue-collar manufacturing sector of the economy has displaced many workers, forcing them to choose between lower wage service-sector jobs or enrolling in postsecondary education to obtain the skills necessary for technical- or professional-level jobs.[7] In addition, the increased participation of women in the work force has increased the number of older women returning to complete an interrupted education or enrolling in postsecondary education for the first time.[8] The family and work responsibilities of such individuals often conflict with the time and financial commitments required to attend school.

[7] L. Mishel and J. Bernstein, The State of Working America: 1945-95, Economic Policy Institute (New York: M.E. Sharp, 1994), 142.
[8] Horn and Premo, Profile of Undergraduates in U.S. Postsecondary Education Institutions. For example, in 1993 two-thirds of undergraduates aged 30 or older were women, compared with just over half of students under the age of 30.

In developing a conceptual model for nontraditional student attrition, Bean and Metzner emphasized the importance of alleviating external risk factors (nonschool responsibilities that conflict with attendance and progress) in helping nontraditional students realize their educational goals.[9] As these researchers point out, regardless of nontraditional students' academic preparation, if they cannot make adequate child care arrangements, adjust their work schedules, or pay for college, they simply will not persist in school.

[9] J. Bean and M. Metzner, "A Conceptual Model of Nontraditional Undergraduate Student Attrition," Review of Educational Research 55 (4) (1985). Note that they define nontraditional as a student who is older than 24, commuting to school, or attending part time.

The analysis presented here expands on the previous studies in two important ways. First, it examines recent enrollment trends for nontraditional students by comparing their prevalence in the three administrations of the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS:87, NPSAS:90, and NPSAS:93). Second, the analysis uses the Beginning Postsecondary Student (BPS) longitudinal survey to explore in greater depth than previous studies the persistence and attainment of nontraditional students 5 years after starting their postsecondary education. For example, these data identify when students dropped out and whether or not their degree goals changed over time. In addition, the impact of individual nontraditional student characteristics on persistence and attainment is explored using a weighted least squares regression model. Thus, the availability of data from the three NPSAS surveys combined with the BPS longitudinal component permitted a detailed examination of the participation of nontraditional students nationwide.

[Acknowledgments] Previous Table of Contents Next[Definitions and Data]