The Changing Face of Higher Education?

Discussions of improving postsecondary outcomes and increasing educational attainment frequently refer to the changing character of the student body.  It is easy to visualize “college students” as those who who graduate from high school, enroll full-time, and earn a college degree in the prescribed time frame. But many students – and a disproportionate number of those who never make it through – are older, enroll part-time, have dependents, attend two-year colleges.  Unfortunately, efforts to call attention to this reality are too frequently combined with the claim the “traditional” student is an anachronism – that over time students have come less and less to look the way they did in the 1950s and the 1960s. Fewer and fewer students fit the stereotype, the argument goes, so designing policies focused on those rare (and privileged) few misses the point.

Is there really a long-term trend away from traditional college students?  Let’s look at some simple data from the Digest of Education Statistics about fall enrollments over time.


%  Part-Time % Age 25+
1970 32% 28%
1980 41% 37%
1990 43% 42%
2000 41% 39%
2005 38% 39%
2006 38% 39%
2007 38% 39%
2008 39% 39%
2009 38% 42%

During the 1970s, when the number of public two-year colleges in the United States grew by about 25 percent, the percentage of all students who were over the age of 24 increased from 28 percent to 37 percent. This trend continued at a slower rate in the 1980s, and by 1990, 42 percent of enrolled postsecondary students were over the age of 24.  But the pattern has not continued over the most recent two decades. In 2008, 39 percent of students were of “nontraditional” age. Not surprisingly, the number rose in 2009 as labor-market opportunities dwindled. But it’s certainly too soon to call this the resumption of a trend.

Part-time enrollments show a similar pattern. In 1980, 41 percent of students were enrolled part-time – an increase from 32 percent in 1970. But after rising to 43 percent in 1990, the percentage of students enrolled part-time fell to 41 percent in 2000, 38 percent in 2005 – and was 38 percent in 2009.

We do need to focus on the needs of older students, of part-time students, of students with other risk factors that make it more difficult for them to succeed in postsecondary education. But traditional college students are not disappearing. The number of enrolled students ages 24 and younger grew from 8 million in 1990, to 9.3 million in 2000 and to 11.8 million in 2009. About 60 percent of these “traditional age”  students  (as opposed to 30 percent of older students) attend exclusively full-time.

A substantial majority of these “traditional” students are pursuing a “college degree,” either a B.A. or an A.A. (the latter often as a way station, they hope, to a B.A.). Some traditional and a great many “nontraditional” students are not seeking academic degrees, but rather vocational training or professional certifications of one kind or another. These endeavors are pretty different from one another, and there is every reason to doubt that they are all best provided in the same way, or even always in the same institutions.

We have a diverse population with multiple needs. Using the word “college” to label every educational activity undertaken by a person too old to be in high school does not contribute to clear thinking about how to do educational work of different kinds well. One concept of “college,” one way of designing classroom experiences, one model of incorporating technology, and one mode of financing educational expenses cannot address such varied experiences and purposes.  We might begin by developing a vocabulary that recognizes and respects both “traditional” and “nontraditional” students.


Return to Top