NCES Releases New Data on Today’s Nontraditional Students

By Manuela Ekowo

Recently, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) released Demographic and Enrollment Characteristics of Nontraditional Undergraduates: 2011-12, a report with descriptive statistics about nontraditional undergraduate students. Nontraditional students have the following characteristics: are independent [1], have dependents of their own, did not enter postsecondary education immediately after high school, and/or may be working while enrolled in school. The report presents key demographic, enrollment, and academic data from comprehensive, nationally representative surveys of nontraditional students.

Seventy-four percent of all 2011–12 undergraduates had at least one nontraditional characteristic, according to the report. Longitudinal data from four other surveys reveal that this trend has been growing since 1995-1996 to its highest level in the current survey (2011-2012). The data show the same trend for the percent of students with dependents, and those single with dependents with survey data for 2011-2012 reporting the highest percentages since 1995-1996 for both groups (27.5 percent and 15.2 percent respectively). A third (33.9 percent) of all female undergraduates had at least one dependent and Blacks and students attending four-year for-profit institutions most commonly had more than one dependent.

Below are some other key data points that reflect today’s undergraduates’ nontraditional statuses and policies CLASP has recommended for adequately addressing the complex circumstances nontraditional students face.

  • More than a third, or 37.7 percent, of students in 2011-12 reported not working at all, which is substantially higher than all other years in which survey data were reported. The downturn of the economy may have been at play.
  • More than any other racial or ethnic group, Black students mixed their enrollment status. According to the report, Black and Hispanic students more commonly attended exclusively part-time; all other racial and ethnic groups more commonly attended exclusively full-time. CLASP has recommended that Congress preserve continuous student aid eligibility for students who mix enrollment over the course of their college program, including when they attend less-than-half-time, as well as continue to allow students enrolled in 12 credits per term to be counted as full-time students for the purposes of financial aid eligibility.
  • Students in the lowest income quartile were equally likely to attend exclusively full-time or exclusively part-time (39.7 percent and 38.5 percent, respectively). Of students who worked full-time, 20.3 percent were also enrolled exclusively full-time, and another 17.4 percent enrolled a mix of full- and part-time. For these reasons, CLASP believes allowing students to receive aid more flexibly for year-round study will enable them to respond to changing family and life circumstances or accelerate their studies. Another strategy that could benefit students who work and go to school would be to reduce the “work penalty” for low-income, independent students by expanding the amount of income a student can keep for minimal living expenses before being expected to contribute toward college costs.
  • Students with at least one nontraditional characteristic were most likely to attend a public two-year institution. For example, almost half of students (48.4 percent) without a high school diploma and close to half (44.8 percent) of single parents attend public two-year institutions. CLASP supports the Higher Education Act’s “Ability to Benefit” (ATB) provision that would allow federal student aid (including Pell grants) to be awarded to students who do not have a high school diploma or equivalent if they participate in eligible career pathway programs, removing restrictions from students’ ability to participate in postsecondary education. CLASP encourages Congress to provide ATB students with access to the full Pell award. We should be promoting career pathways and other program designs that provide additional supports and help low-skilled, working students, and those also juggling family responsibilities, complete postsecondary credentials and secure good jobs. Such programs would allow students to begin their postsecondary education or training without delay.
  • The more nontraditional characteristics that students had, the more likely they were to have taken a class, or to have had a degree program offered, exclusively online. For instance, 2 percent of students without any nontraditional characteristics had their degree program offered completely online, compared with 12 percent of students with four or more characteristics. Independent students, students with dependents, students without a high school diploma, and students who worked full-time were all more likely to have their program offered completely online. With this in mind, CLASP has proposed that reauthorization of the Higher Education Act encourage innovation in competency-based approaches that have the potential to provide flexible, yet quality-assured learning and credentialing options to better serve the needs of today’s diverse student body.

For more information on how yesterday’s nontraditional student is more common today than might have been previously thought, see CLASP’s fact sheet, HEA recommendations, and read NCES’s data report.

[1] Independent students are age 24 or over and students under 24 who are married, have dependents, are veterans or on active duty, are orphans or wards of the courts, are homeless or at risk of homelessness, or were determined to be independent by a financial aid officer using professional judgment. Other undergraduates under age 24 are considered to be dependent.