Trends buck tradition: Over half of college students now ‘nontraditional’

Money, Family/Kids, Relationships

It’s long been the dream of many parents for their children to go to college. These days, it’s also the dream of many children for their parents to go to college. Over the past few decades, the traditional college student has been replaced by a new kind of student, one with more responsibilities and more experience, not to mention more years. These students differ in age, circumstance and in the challenges that arise when it comes to finding the right college program.

More than half of college students ‘nontraditional’

The National Center for Education Statistics defines a “nontraditional student” as one who meets at least one of these seven requirements:

  1. Older than typical age; in other words, a student whose enrollment has been delayed beyond the year of high school graduation
  2. Enrolled part time
  3. Financially independent
  4. Works full time
  5. Has a non-spouse dependent
  6. Single parent
  7. Did not receive standard high school diploma

Considering the wide range of possibilities, it’s no wonder that the reported statistics on how many traditional students are left vary so widely. A student may be only slightly nontraditional, such as a high school graduate who delays entering college for one year to travel, or extremely nontraditional, such as a 40-year-old single parent who works full time and has a GED diploma.

According to data from the NCES for the year 2011, the most recent year for which data are available, only 35.4 percent of more than 18.1 million students were traditional, or under age 24 and attending a four-year public or private nonprofit institution full time. Of the remaining 64.6 percent, many attend two-year schools or private for-profit schools, attend part time or are older than 24. In 1970, 27.9 percent of students in college were over age 24. In 2011, that number was 41 percent.

With age comes responsibility. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that while the majority of all college students work in some capacity, approximately 20 percent of students work full time, or 35 hours or more per week, year-round. And the number of students with dependent children is even higher, at 25 percent, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Nontraditional students juggle school, family, work

Understandably, prospective students already juggling work and family responsibilities look for college programs that will fit in with their lives. They face different challenges than do their 18-year-old childless, jobless counterparts.

A February 2012 report to the U.S. Congress and secretary of education from the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance titled “Pathways to Success” discusses challenges nontraditional students face in three key areas.

  1. Situational: e.g., lack of money, lack of time or inability to make class schedules fit in with other demands
  2. Institutional: e.g., bureaucracy, administration fees or difficulty getting credits transferred from other institutions
  3. Dispositional: e.g., low self-confidence in learning due to age or lack of motivation

Schools can address the concerns of nontraditional students by offering programs that:

  • Can be completed in shorter amounts of time than a typical associate’s or bachelor’s degree
  • Have flexible hours, evening classes or online classes
  • Begin year-round, not just in September or January
  • Focus on practical skills that will be useful on the job

The market meets a demand

Catering to these demands are private for-profit schools, also called proprietary schools. They offer adult students what they are looking for in terms of flexibility and promise of practical job training, but they do so at a high price.

In the next article we’ll look at how proprietary schools have become more popular and why the federal government is targeting them with new education guidelines.