Most College Students are Financially Independent, with Many Working and Raising Children while in School

Press Release

February 20, 2018
Contact: Jennifer Clark | 202-785-5100 |

Most College Students are Financially Independent, with Many Working and Raising Children while in School

Study finds that independent students are more likely to be students of color, less likely to graduate, and four times as likely to attend for-profit colleges.

Washington, DC—A briefing paper released today by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) describes the “new college majority,” finding that more than half (51 percent) of college students are now what used to be considered “nontraditional”—financially independent, over age 24, and with children (dependents) of their own, among other characteristics.

Compared with dependent students—the more “conventional” 18-23-year-old student entering college directly from high school with the financial support of their parents—independent students are:

  • More likely to be students of color: More than half of all students of color are independent (55 percent), compared with 49 percent of White students. African American and Native American students are especially likely to be going to school without family support, at 65 and 63 percent, respectively.
  • More likely to be women: 55 percent of women in college are independent, compared with 46 percent of men.
  • Likely to be parents of young children: Roughly half of independent college students, or 4.8 million students, are parents of dependent children. Seven in 10 student parents are women, with women of color in college are especially likely to be student parents.
  • Twice as likely to be living in poverty: 42 percent of independent students live at or below the federal poverty line, compared with 17 percent of dependent students. In fact, nearly two in three college students living in poverty (72 percent) are independent.
  • More likely to work at least 20 hours per week: More than two-thirds of independent students work on top of going to school, and the majority work at least 20 hours per week (compared with 39 percent of dependent students work at least 20 hours per week).
  • Nearly four times more likely to attend for-profit colleges: 20 percent of independent students are enrolled at for-profit colleges, compared with only 5 percent of their dependent peers.
  • Less likely to graduate: Only one in three independent students earn a degree or certificate, compared with more than half of their dependent peers.

IWPR Vice President and Executive Director Barbara Gault, Ph.D., commented on the findings:

“Improving college access, equity, and completion requires addressing the circumstances and needs of independent students, who are the new college majority. Independent students’ complex schedules, and their serious financial and family responsibilities, require us to rethink student supports, financial aid, and higher education policy to ensure their success.”

The briefing paper includes recommendations for higher education administrators and policymakers, including collecting data on independent student outcomes; rethinking financial aid to allow for reductions in work time and to account for the full array of school expenses experienced by independent students (including child care and transportation costs); and encouraging employers to provide more predictable schedules for students balancing school and work.

The Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) is a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization that conducts and communicates research to inspire public dialogue, shape policy, and improve the lives and opportunities of women of diverse backgrounds, circumstances, and experiences.