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Nontraditional Undergraduates / Definitions and Data

Definitions and Data

Who Is Nontraditional?

Exactly what constitutes a nontraditional student has been the source of much discussion in recent research. Most often age (especially being over the age of 24) has been the defining characteristic for this population.[10] Age acts as a surrogate variable that captures a large, heterogeneous population of adult students who often have family and work responsibilities as well as other life circumstances that can interfere with successful completion of educational objectives. Other variables typically used to characterize nontraditional students are associated with their background (race and gender),[11] residence (i.e., not on campus), level of employment (especially working full time), and being enrolled in nondegree occupational programs.[12]

[10] Bean and Metzner, "A Conceptual Model." In their review of the literature, age was one of the most common independent variables in studies of attrition. See also M. Cleveland-Innes, "Adult Student Dropout at Postsecondary Institutions," Review of Higher Education, 17 (4) (1994); and S. Hurtado, K. Kurotsuchi, and S. Sharp, "Traditional, Delayed Entry, and Nontraditional Students" (paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, 1996).
[11] D. Jones and B. Watson, "High Risk" Students in Higher Education, ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report 3 (Washington D.C.: Clearinghouse on Higher Education, The George Washington University, 1990), 6. The authors make a distinction between high risk and nontraditional students, the latter being women, minorities, adults, and part-time students.
[12] Bean and Metzner, "A Conceptual Model."

In this study, rather than focusing on age or other background characteristics, the criteria chosen to identify nontraditional students pertain to choices and behavior that may increase students' risk of attrition and as such, are amenable to change or intervention at various stages in a student's school life. With this intention, three sets of criteria were used to identify nontraditional students: 1) enrollment patterns, 2) financial and family status, and 3) high school graduation status.

Enrollment patterns. Assuming that traditional enrollment in postsecondary education is defined as enrolling immediately after high school and attending full time, students who diverge from this pattern would be considered nontraditional. In this study, therefore, students who delayed enrollment in postsecondary education by a year or more after high school or who attended part time were considered nontraditional.

Financial and family status. Family responsibilities and financial constraints used to identify nontraditional students included having dependents other than a spouse, being a single parent, working full time while enrolled, or being financially independent from parents.

High school graduation status. Students who did not receive a standard high school diploma but who earned some type of certificate of completion were also considered nontraditional. This included GED recipients and those who received a high school certificate of completion. Students who did not graduate from high school or earn a certificate of completion (less than 2 percent) were removed from the analysis due to their limited access to 4-year colleges and universities.

Data and Nontraditional Variable Construction

The following section describes the survey data sources and how the nontraditional variables were constructed for the analyses. Because the enrollment trend analysis involved comparing enrollment estimates across three different surveys, a number of modifications to the variables were necessary in order to make them comparable. The persistence and attainment analysis, on the other hand, relied on data from one longitudinal survey, and therefore, the most accurate measurement possible was used to identify nontraditional students. Figure 1 summarizes the variables used for each analysis.

Trend Analysis

The analysis of nontraditional student enrollment trends was based on the NPSAS surveys that were conducted in the academic years 1986-87, 1989-90, and 1992-93. These national surveys are cross-sectional and represent all students enrolled in U.S. postsecondary institutions, from less-than-2 year vocational institutions to research universities. The NPSAS:87 survey differed somewhat from the NPSAS:90 and NPSAS:93 surveys because it sampled students enrolled in the fall term only, while the NPSAS:90 and NPSAS:93 were conducted on full-year samples. To maintain comparability across data sets, the analysis was restricted to students who attended in the fall.[13] Table 1 shows the percentage distribution of fall undergraduates according to level and type of institution.

[13] About one-quarter of nontraditional students in the NPSAS:90 and NPSAS:93 surveys were excluded. This primarily affected students enrolled in private, for-profit institutions, about 40 percent of whom were not enrolled in the fall. However, only about 8 percent of undergraduates were enrolled in such institutions. (1989-90 and 1992-93 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study Data Analysis Systems.)

Delayed Enrollment (older than typical age). In previous studies based solely on NPSAS:93 data, it was possible to create a delayed enrollment variable using dates of high school graduation and entry into postsecondary education. However, because of the large number of missing dates of graduation in the NPSAS:87 survey, this analysis uses a surrogate variable that captures delayed entry by identifying undergraduates who are older than typical for their particular year in school. Students who are 20 or older as freshmen, 21 or older as sophomores, 22 or older as juniors, and all students 23 or older were identified as older than typical and considered nontraditional.[14] Obviously, this definition also includes some students who stopped out for a period of time, attended on a very part-time basis, or otherwise took longer to progress even if they did not delay their initial entry. Thus, students are more likely to be identified as nontraditional with this variable than they would be with a direct measurement of delayed enrollment. For example, among 1992-93 undergraduates, 43 percent were identified as having delayed enrollment, while 59 percent were older than typical. At the same time, 14 percent of those who actually delayed enrollment were not identified as older than typical. Attempting to reduce the proportion of older-than-typical students by increasing the age requirement only increased the proportion of missed delayed entrants, especially among 20- to 23-year-olds,[15] an age group that has been shown to differ considerably from traditional students.[16]

[14] The age selected to define older than typical was 1 year above the modal age at the time of the survey for each year in school.
[15] 1992-93 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS:93) Data Analysis System.
[16] Hurtado et al., in a comparison of traditional students (age 19 or younger when first enrolled), 20- to 24-year-old students who delayed enrollment, and older students (25 or older), demonstrated that students aged 20-24 who delayed enrollment were very different from traditional students with regard to many factors, including student background characteristics, self-reports of ability, sources of financial support, and institutional characteristics. Thus, the authors concluded that the 20-24 age group who had delayed entry should not be considered traditional for policy purposes. See S. Hurtado, K. Kurotsuchi, and S. Sharp, "Traditional, Delayed Entry, and Nontraditional Students" (paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, 1996).

Figure 1

Table 1-Percentage distribution (by columns) of undergraduates according to institutional level, control, and type: Fall 1986, 1989, and 1992

                                        1986    1989    1992
            Total                      100.0   100.0   100.0
Level of institution
    Less-than-2-year                     4.7     4.7     5.0
    2-year                              40.3    42.8    44.2
    4-year or more                      55.0    52.5    50.8
Control of institution
    Public                              76.5    76.8    76.6
    Private, not-for-profit             18.1    17.1    17.1
    Private, for-profit                  5.4     6.1     6.4
Institutional type
        Less-than-2-year                 1.2     1.0     1.3
        2-year                          37.4    39.7    41.2
        4-year nondoctorate-granting    15.1    15.8    14.1
        4-year doctorate-granting       22.9    20.4    20.0
    Private, not-for-profit
        Less-than-4-year                 1.3     1.3     1.4
        4-year nondoctorate-granting    10.0     9.9     8.8
        4-year doctorate-granting        6.8     5.9     6.8
    Private, for-profit                  5.4     6.1     6.4

NOTE: Details may not add to 100 percent due to rounding.

SOURCES: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, National Postsecondary Student Aid Study: 1986-87 (NPSAS:87), 1989-90 (NPSAS:90), 1992-93 (NPSAS:93), Data Analysis Systems.

Part-Time Enrollment. Students who attended school part time when they enrolled in the fall of the survey year (i.e., 1986, 1989, and 1992) were considered nontraditional. Again, in previous studies based only on NPSAS:93 data, a full-year definition of part-time enrollment was used. That is, anyone who was not enrolled full time for a full academic year was considered part time. Because NPSAS:87 is based only on a fall sample, the full-year definition could not be applied. As a point of comparison, the full-year definition of part-time status resulted in about 54 percent of 1992-93 undergraduates being identified as part time, while the definition used in this study resulted in about 42 percent being so identified. [17]

[17] 1992-93 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS:93) Data Analysis System.

Financial Independence. Whether or not a student is considered financially independent of his or her parents is determined when assessing the student's need for financial aid. Parents of dependent students are expected to pay for a portion of their child's education, while parents of independent students are not obliged to do so (though many parents do provide assistance). Therefore, independent students often carry a greater financial burden than dependent students, and as such are considered nontraditional. It is important to note that the definition of independence changed between 1986 and 1989. In 1989, all students 24 or older were considered independent, which substantially increased the proportion of independent students due only to the change definition. For comparability in this analysis, the latter definition was applied to the 1986 undergraduates.

Full-Time Employment While Enrolled (in October). The most comparable employment variable across the three surveys was one that determined employment status in the month of October.[18] Therefore, if a student indicated working 35 or more hours per week during October, the student was considered nontraditional.

[18] Since October is typically the second month of enrollment, it was assumed that working full time during this month represented a dominant pattern of work throughout a student's enrollment for that year.

Dependents. Undergraduates who reported having dependents other than a spouse were also designated as nontraditional. In addition to children, dependents may include elder parents, siblings, or other members of the family for whom the student is financially responsible.

Single Parents. If a student was not married but reported having dependents other than a spouse, that student was identified as a single parent and nontraditional. Although an unmarried person with dependents other than children (such as older parents) is not technically a single parent, the financial burden and time constraints could be similar.

GED Recipient or Certificate of Completion. A student who did not receive a standard high school diploma, but reported completing high school either through passing a General Education Development (GED) exam or other equivalency exam, or receiving a certificate of high school completion was considered nontraditional.

Persistence and Attainment Analysis

The analysis of persistence and attainment was based on data from the Beginning Postsecondary Students (BPS) survey, the longitudinal component of the NPSAS:90 survey consisting of all students who first began their postsecondary education in 1989-90. The second followup of BPS was conducted in 1994, approximately 5 years after students first enrolled. Thus, attainment rates are available for students who received associate's degrees and vocational certificates as well as for those who completed bachelor's degrees within 5 years.

Four differences in the definition of nontraditional status for the analysis of persistence and attainment compared to the enrollment analysis using NPSAS data should be noted (see appendix A for explanations): 1) an actual delayed entry variable was constructed (rather than using older-than-typical proxy); 2) the employment variable identifies students who worked full time at any time during their 1989-90 enrollment; 3) students were defined as financially independent according to federal income tax criteria (i.e., they were not claimed on their parents' 1988 federal income tax return); and 4) only children were considered dependents of undergraduates.

Nontraditional Scale

Clearly, many of the characteristics used to identify nontraditional undergraduates are strongly interrelated. For example, students may delay enrolling in postsecondary education or attend part time because of family and work responsibilities. In 1992-93, about 80 percent of students working full time while enrolled attended part time.[19] Similarly, in the same year, nearly two-thirds of undergraduates with dependents had delayed their enrollment. In addition, for certain nontraditional characteristics, a student necessarily has more than one. For example, a single parent is by definition, responsible for dependents and is almost always independent, resulting in a minimum of three characteristics. Thus, undergraduates with any nontraditional characteristics usually have more than one. In this study, therefore, the changing trends of undergraduates with multiple characteristics are presented and discussed. In order to examine this phenomenon, a scale was constructed that represents a simple sum of all nontraditional characteristics (from 0 to 7), with zero representing traditional students. The degree to which students were considered nontraditional is described below:

[19] Horn and Premo, Profile of Undergraduates in U.S. Postsecondary Institutions.

Minimally Nontraditional. Students with only one nontraditional characteristic were considered "minimally nontraditional." In general, these students were most often either older than typical or enrolled part time in postsecondary education (table 2).[20] Minimally nontraditional undergraduates accounted for about 14 to 15 percent of students in each of the three NPSAS samples.

[20] In 1989, minimally nontraditional undergraduates were slightly more likely to be working full time than to be attending part time.

Table 2-Composition of undergraduates according to nontraditional (NT) characteristics among all undergraduates: Fall 1986, 1989, and 1992

                                                Nontraditional characteristics
                                                                                                   GED/2 or
                            Percent with   Older  Attend    Work                 Have           high school
                                  any NT    than    part    full   Independ-  depend-  Single    completion
                  Year   characteristics typical    time    time       ent/1     ents  parent   certificate
All                 86              64.6    53.9    37.8    25.6        46.3     19.9     6.5           7.0
undergraduates      89              68.6    56.2    38.7    32.7        48.6     22.2     7.2           4.9
                    92              69.6    59.2    42.2    27.6        48.3     20.0     6.9           4.0
Nontraditional        Total percent
undergraduates:              with status
Minimally           86              13.8    37.6    34.4    12.3        11.3      0.0     0.0           4.4
nontraditional      89              15.1    36.1    24.7    31.1        10.9      0.0     0.0           1.5
                    92              15.1    48.4    32.5    12.0        11.1      0.0     0.0           0.9
Moderately          86              24.8    89.0    44.5    24.8        73.0     12.0     0.8           8.2
nontraditional      89              27.5    89.8    48.3    30.3        74.6     13.5     1.5           4.5
                    92              31.1    93.9    56.3    25.9        73.4     11.3     2.1           3.3
Highly              86              26.0    99.3    83.2    69.5        99.6     63.1    22.8          19.5
nontraditional      89              25.9    99.4    83.6    72.6        99.9     66.5    24.6          13.0
                    92              23.4    99.0    83.7    68.4        99.9     68.9    27.1          12.2

1/ This category was defined in 1986 according to the 1989 and 1992 definitions for dependency status.

2/ GED refers to the General Education Development exam.

NOTE: Nontraditional status is based on the presence of one or more of seven possible nontraditional characteristics: minimal=1, moderate=2 or 3, highly=4 or more.

SOURCES: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, National Postsecondary Student Aid Study: 1986-87 (NPSAS:87), 1989-90 (NPSAS:90), 1992-93 (NPSAS:93), Data Analysis Systems.

Moderately Nontraditional. Students with two or three nontraditional characteristics were considered moderately nontraditional. These students, who made up 25 to 31 percent of undergraduates in the three NPSAS surveys, tended to be older than typical, independent, and to attend part time.

Highly Nontraditional. Having four or more nontraditional characteristics distinguished students identified as highly nontraditional. In addition to those characteristics associated with moderately nontraditional students, about two-thirds of highly nontraditional students either had dependents or worked full time, and about one-quarter were single parents. Highly nontraditional students accounted for about one in four undergraduates in the three NPSAS surveys.

Overall, students who are identified as nontraditional according to these criteria are more likely to be women, to belong to a racial-ethnic minority group, and to have less educated parents than traditional students (figure 2). However, as previously noted, rather than focusing on background characteristics, the criteria chosen to identify nontraditional students in this study are ones that are subject to intervention or change at various stages of a student's academic life. For example, high school students who are prepared to enter postsecondary education but who are uncertain about whether they should attend immediately or delay their enrollment, could be encouraged to do the former. Alternatively, adults who make the commitment to return to school or enroll for the first time later in life could be offered assistance in a number of ways to help them persist and attain their educational goals. Such assistance might be flexible class scheduling, child care arrangements, part-time job placement, and so on.

Finally, with regard to outcome measures it should be noted that the intention of this study is not to imply that degree attainment is the only way that students can profit from postsecondary education. While the labor market benefits of those who earn a bachelor's degree relative to those who attend college but do not attain a degree have long been known,[21] it is possible that nontraditional students who do not attain a degree benefit in other ways not measured in this study. For example, nontraditional students may enroll in an associate's degree program with the intention of taking specific courses toward enhancing an established career, rather than to earn a degree. In doing so, their combined work experience and postsecondary course taking may improve their marketability in ways not yet possible for their traditional counterparts who have not begun a career.

[21] See, for example, E. Pascarella and P. Terenzini, How College Affects Students (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 1991), 502.

Figure 2-Composition of 1992 fall undergraduates according to gender, race-ethnicity, and parents' education for traditional and nontraditional students

Figure 2
NOTE: Nontraditional status is based on the presence of one or more of seven possible nontraditional characteristics. These characteristics include older than typical age, part-time attendance, being independent of parents, working full time while enrolled, having dependents, being a single parent, and being a recipient of a GED or high school completion certificate.

SOURCES: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), National Postsecondary Student Aid Study: 1986-87 (NPSAS:87), 1989-90 (NPSAS:90), 1992-93 (NPSAS:93), Data Analysis Systems.

Trends in Nontraditional Student Enrollment

Nontraditional students, as broadly defined by this study, accounted for a substantial proportion of the undergraduate population in all three surveys (figure 3). A clear majority of undergraduates were at least minimally nontraditional, and about half were either moderately or highly nontraditional. The trend over the 6-year period indicates that the enrollment of nontraditional students overall increased between 1986 and 1989, and then leveled off in 1992.

While the overall proportion of nontraditional students did not change between 1989 and 1992, the composition relative to the number of nontraditional characteristics did. That is, the proportion who were moderately nontraditional increased from 28 to 31 percent, while the proportion who were highly nontraditional declined from 26 to 23 percent. If one looks at enrollment according to level of institution, the changes can primarily be attributed to the trends of enrollment in 2-year institutions where the highest proportion of nontraditional students are enrolled.

Changes in enrollment relative to institution type can provide some indication of whether institutions are successfully reaching out to less traditional students in order to maintain or increase their enrollment. This appears to be true for private, not-for-profit 4-year colleges (table 3). Between 1986 and 1992, for example, the proportion of moderately nontraditional students who were enrolled in private, not-for-profit 4-year colleges (both nondoctoral and doctoral) increased. At the same time, the proportion of highly nontraditional students enrolled in these institutions remained stable. Public 2-year institutions, on the other hand, experienced no meaningful change in the proportion of moderately nontraditional students between 1986 and 1989 (31 and 33 percent), but their enrollment increased from 33 to 39 percent between 1989 and 1992. At the same time, unlike the private, not-for-profit 4-year nondoctoral colleges, the proportion of highly nontraditional students who were enrolled in these institutions actually declined from 42 to 35 percent.

While it appears as though there are large fluctuations in nontraditional student enrollment in other institutions such as public less-than-2-year and private, not-for-profit less-than-4-year institutions, it is important to remember that only about 1 to 2 percent of undergraduates are enrolled in these institutions (see table 1) and therefore, there is not enough statistical evidence to conclude that actual changes occurred.

Trends in nontraditional enrollment are also apparent when examined according to the average number of nontraditional characteristics among the undergraduate population (figure 4). Among students in public 2-year institutions, for example, the average number of nontraditional characteristics peaked in 1989 and declined in 1992 (from 2.7 to 2.9 to 2.7). Among students in private, not-for-profit 4-year nondoctoral institutions, on the other hand, the average number of nontraditional characteristics for the 3 years was 1.3, 1.4, and 1.6, respectively, demonstrating a gradual increase over time.

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