Post-Traditional Students in Higher Education
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, traditional students (those who attend four-year colleges and live on campus) make up about 15% of the undergraduate population. The remaining 85% of students are considered “post-traditional”[i] and are a diverse group of adult learners, full-time employees, low-income students, students who commute to school and working parents. In general, post-traditional students have one or more of the following characteristics: they delay enrollment in college after high school, they attend part time for at least part of an academic year, they work full time while also enrolled in school, they are financially independent or they have dependents (spouse and/or children).
Attendance Intensity and Enrollment Behavior
- Post-traditional students are more likely to enroll at two-year, public institutions.
- 51% of students with dependents enroll at two-year institutions.
- 46% of students aged 24 to 39 attend a two-year institution and 52% of students 40 and older attend two-year institutions.
- 49% of students who work full time attend two-year institutions.
- While enrollment at public two-year institutions is the most common option for these students, we also see high enrollments at for-profit institutions.
- Nearly one third of unmarried students with children attend for-profit institutions.
- 18% of students aged 24 to 29 attend for-profits, 23% aged 30 to 39 attend for-profits and 20% of students 40 and older attend for-profits.
- Student parents account for 51% of all students at for-profit institutions.
- Post-traditional students enroll in college at a wide range of intensities from full-time full year to part-time for part of the year, but 33% attend part-time and for part of the year.
- The older a student is, the more likely he/she is to attend part-time, part-year; 31% of students aged 24 to 29 attend part-time, part-year and 39% of students 40 years old and above attend part-time, part-year.
- Post-traditional students are very likely to take advantage of online postsecondary options; 80% of students enrolled in online programs were 25 years old or older.
- Post-traditional students are less likely to complete a program or degree. Nearly half leave community colleges (where most of these students enroll) after three years, without a degree. At four-year colleges, they complete at a rate of 15%.
- Most post-traditional students are pursuing an associate’s degree as opposed to a bachelor’s degree.
- Post-traditional students are more likely to have dependents.
- 26% of all postsecondary students in the U.S. are parents.
- Over half of students aged 30 to 39 had two or more dependents and just over 40% of students aged 40 and older had dependents.
- Any student with dependents is much more likely to be female.
- 77% of students with dependents are unmarried and 61% are married.
- In the postsecondary education system, women of color are the most likely to have dependent children. 47% of African-American female students are parents, 39% of Native American female students are parents, 32% of Latina female students are parents and 29% of white female students are parents.
- The majority of female student parents enrolled in college say that the activity taking up most of their time in any given week is child/dependent care, followed by work and, lastly, school.
- Student parents are less likely to complete their degree than non-parents. Of students who started a program in 2003–2004, only 33% left with a degree or certificate after six years.
- Post-traditional students are more likely to be low-income and require financial assistance.
- Over 50% of students aged 24 to 26, over 33% of students aged 30 to 39 and over a quarter of students aged 40 and older had an annual income of less than $20,000.
- Two thirds (66%) of unmarried student parents had an annual income of less than $20,000.
- The average age of Pell Grant recipients is 26 years old, a figure that has been steadily rising for the last two decades.
- Post-traditional students are more likely to have an expected family contribution of $0 and are more likely to have high levels of unmet financial need.
- Unmet need for students who are financially independent is over $5,000. For student parents, it is closer to $5,500.
College Affordability for Low-Income Adults: Improving Returns on Investment for Families and Society. Institute for Women’s Policy Research, April 2014.
Post-Traditional Learners and the Transformation of Postsecondary Education. ACE, January 2013.
National Center for Education Statistics. The Condition of Education 2010.
Profile of Undergraduate Students 2011-2012. National Center for Education Statistics, October, 2014.
[i] While the U.S. Department of Education uses the term “non-traditional” many researchers prefer the term “post-traditional” since it recognizes these students for the “value-add” they bring to their colleges. For the purposes of this brief, non-traditional and post-traditional are used interchangeably as characteristics of both groups contain significant overlap.
Updated August 2017