“Nontraditional” students becoming the norm

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“Nontraditional” students becoming the norm

nontraditional student in collegeThe stereotypical college student is an 18-23-year-old recent high school graduate who relies on financial support from his or her parents. Whatever its historical accuracy, as of 2012 this stereotype does not represent the majority of college students in the United States. A recent IWPR briefing paper finds that more than half of those enrolled in college are “independent,” i.e., having at least one of the following characteristics: 24 years of age or older; married or with legal dependents; pursuing a graduate or professional degree; currently or formerly serving in the military; an orphan, in foster care, or a ward of the court; homeless or at risk of homelessness; or a legally emancipated minor.

Independent students differ from their more conventional counterparts in many significant ways. For example, when compared with dependent students, 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 independent students, 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 (4.8 million), are parents of dependent children. Seven in 10 student parents are women; women students of color are particularly likely to be raising young children while in college.
  • 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. Nearly three-quarters of all college students who live in poverty (72 percent) are independent.
  • More likely to work at least 20 hours per week: More than two-thirds of independent students work and go to school, and the majority work at least 20 hours per week (57 percent, compared with the 39 percent of dependent students who work the same amount).
  • 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 counterparts.
  • Less likely to graduate: Only one in three independent students earns a degree or certificate within six years of enrollment, compared with more than half of their dependent peers.

These varying circumstances can cause profound differences in students’ ability to stay in school and graduate, affecting their post-college lives. To facilitate independent students’ success in higher education, the briefing paper proposes a number of policy changes, including: ensuring that assessments of independent students’ financial needs adequately consider all of their expenses, including the costs of child care and transportation; changing financial aid policies to permit independent students to cut down their work hours; and encouraging college faculty, staff, and administrators to consider the scheduling and financial needs of independent students in designing systems and programs.

The increase in so-called “nontraditional” college students will make a substantial difference in the college experience for every student. As Congress debates the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, it is imperative that independent students’ needs and circumstances be considered to ensure that opportunities to earn a higher degree are more accessible and affordable for all college students.