Who is Nontraditional?

Page Title

The National Center for Education Statistics' Definition of a

nontraditional student:


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.

For more information on what defines a nontraditional student, visit the National Center for Education Statistics website.

adult grad with question mark.jpg
Classmates in Library