NCES Report Nontraditional Students Term Paper

NCES Report Nontraditional Students

The report from the United States Department of Education entitled “The Condition of Education: Non-traditional Undergraduates” (2002) provides a literature synopsis of educational trends regarding those students who are deemed “nontraditional.” Its purpose is to analyze the environment, climate, and student outcomes at private schools and enrollment and persistence of nontraditional undergraduates. According to the report, the undergraduate population in the United States is undergoing a considerable change. The “traditional” undergraduate, who is defined as one going to college immediately after graduating high school, either working part-time or not at all, and depending on parents for financial support due to, “is the exception rather than the rule” (2002, p.1). Instead, the number of “nontraditional students” is continuing to rise. Nontraditional students fall into one or more of the following categories: delay enrollment (do not enter postsecondary education in the same calendar year that he or she finished high school); attends part time for some part of the academic year; work full time while enrolled; Is financially independent as determined for eligibility for financial aid; has dependents other than a spouse (usually children); is a single parent (not married/married but separated with dependents); or do not have a high school diploma (completed high school with a high school completion certificate or did not finish high school). Presently, nearly 75% of students are characterized by one of these areas. They are considered “minimally nontraditional” with only one nontraditional characteristic, “moderately nontraditional” with two or three, and “highly nontraditional” with four or more (2002, p.19).

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The report found a significant difference between the educational attainment levels of the traditional and nontraditional students. School does not appear to have first claim on the highly nontraditional individuals and many found that work limited their class and scheduling options. In fact, nontraditional students were much more likely to leave without earning any degree and were most at risk of dropping out in their first year. Further, nontraditional beginning students who left their first institution were more likely to completely leave college education and to transfer downward. Distance education may help this difference, since both moderately and highly nontraditional students are more likely to participate in this form of learning.

The report did cover the areas as specified in the introduction. However, it is what is not in the report that is questionable. First, there is no discussion of the results regarding the lower number of nontraditional students who follow through with their degree. The only suggestion in the report is the possibility of distance education increasing their persistence. Similarly, there are no follow-up questions regarding other research that is needed.

This report’s findings interested me, since I did not expect such a discrepancy in the number of traditional and nontraditional students. I looked to see if there was a newer research on this topic to see if this difference was addressed more thoroughly. I did not find specific study, but rather read a 2006 report by Mark Schneider, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) that clearly addressed the problems with NCES’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), which is the principal source of annual data at the level of individual postsecondary institutions regarding a number of variables that include characteristics of students, staff, finance, student aid, and graduation rates. Despite its size, IPEDS is limited and cannot answer many questions needed to be answered. Surprisingly, current data simply does not allow NCES “to estimate graduation rates for the vast majority of students” (Schneider, 2006), because the units of analysis are institutions of higher education that report data on an aggregate basis. IPEDS data are limited to full-time, first-time degree- or certificate-seeking students in a particular year (cohort), by race/ethnicity and gender. Thus, no data are available on time to degree for individual students, family income, students who transfer and graduate from a subsequent institution, those enrolling on a part-time basis, and students who start – “stop out” – restart. Schneider asks, “How do you measure quality or design accountability systems for institutions that serve an appreciable number of non-traditional students with data that ignore these students?” A 1958 book by John Brubacher and Rudy Willis, reported on by the Teachers College Record, a journal of educational research, analysis, and commentary published since 1900 by the Teachers College at Columbia University (TC Record website), found that data on education as a whole by the government and educators/researchers “remains a relatively unexplored frontier. Into its regions, where lies a mass of unorganized data concerning higher education…” only a few researchers have ventured. It appears that this land still remains uncharted.

Schneider raises a very relevant question. With such a large number of nontraditional students, and especially the number of the students who drop out of college, it is necessary to determine how many go to another college or get a degree through distance learning. It is also important to know why these individuals are leaving and what can be done to help them continue their education. This report leaves the reader with many more questions than what was answered.


National Center for Educational Statistics (2002) Findings from the Condition of Education 2002: Nontraditional Undergraduates. Website retrieved June 16,

Schneider, Mark (February 6, 2006) Comments delivered to the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. Website retrieved June 16, 2007.

TC Record (1959). “Higher Education in Transition” Report on Higher Education in Transition by John Brubacher and Willis Rudy. Website retrieved June 16, 2007

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