Non-Traditional Students

Facts and figures related to non-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 percent of the undergraduate population. The remaining 85 percent of students are considered “non-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, non-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

  • Non-traditional students are more likely to enroll at two-year, public institutions.
    • Fifty-one percent of students with dependents enroll at two-year institutions.
    • Forty-six percent of students age 24 to 39 attend a two-year institution and 52 percent of students 40 and older attend two-year institutions.
    • Forty-nine percent 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.
    • Eighteen percent of 24-29 year-olds attend for-profits, 23 percent of 30-39 year olds attend for profits and 20 percent of students 40 and older attend for-profits.
  • Non-traditional students enroll in college at a wide range of intensities from full-year, full-time to part-year, part-time but 33 percent 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 percent of 24-29 year olds attend part-time, part-year and 39 percent of students 40 years old and above attend part-time, part-year.
  • Non-traditional students are very likely to take advantage of online postsecondary options; 80 percent of students enrolled in online programs were 25 years old or older.
  • Non-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 percent.
  • Most non-traditional students are pursuing an associate’s degree as opposed to a bachelor’s degree.
    • About 50 percent of students with dependents, students who work full-time, students who are 24 years old and above and students who enroll part-time are pursuing an associate’s degree.


Student Parents

  • Non-traditional students are more likely to have dependents.
    • Twenty-five percent of all postsecondary students in the U.S. are parents.
    • Over half of students ages 30-39 had two or more dependents and just over 40 percent of students age 40 and older had dependents.
    • Any student with dependents is much more likely to be female.
    • Seventy-seven percent of students with dependents are unmarried and 61 percent are married.
  • Women of color are the most likely in the postsecondary education system to have dependent children. Forty-seven percent of African-American female students are parents, 39 percent of Native American female students are parents, 32 percent of Latina female students are parents and 29 percent 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 2003-04, over 50 percent left without earning a degree or certificate after six years.


Financial Barriers

  • Non-traditional students are more likely to be low-income and require financial assistance.
    • Over 50 percent of students age 24-26, over 33 percent of students age 30-39 and over a quarter of students age 40 and older had a yearly income of less than $20,000.
    • Sixty-six percent of unmarried student parents had a yearly income of less than $20,000.
    • Half of students with parents who had not gone to college had a yearly 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.
  • Non-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.
  • Only seven percent of low-income student parents receive Temporary Assistance to Needy Families benefits which adds to the already significant financial challenges of providing for one’s family while paying for college.



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] Some 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 interchangebly as characteristics of both groups contain significant overlap.

Updated August 2015