According to the most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey School Enrollment Supplement, 18.9 million people were enrolled in 4-year colleges in 2018, compared to 20.4 million enrolled students in 2011. Two-year institutions also saw a dip from 5.8 million to 4.3 million. While college enrollment is down overall, there is a growing trend among nontraditional students.

What is a “nontraditional” student?

If a traditional student is between 18 and 22 and attending full-time, then according to the National Center for Education Statistics a nontraditional student either…

  • delayed enrollment into postsecondary education
  • attends college part-time
  • works full-time
  • is financially independent for financial aid purposes
  • has dependents other than a spouse
  • is a single parent
  • does not have a high school diploma. 

Over half of respondents in a 2015 U.S. Department of Education survey possess at least two of those characteristics.

Why is nontraditional enrollment up?

The majority of colleges now cater to nontraditional students, especially people seeking online education. 34.7 percent of students are enrolled in at least one online course. The majority of nontraditional students are categorized as…

  • affiliated with the military (veteran or active duty)
  • switching careers
  • pursuing additional or advanced degree
  • completing a degree

Do nontraditional students have less student debt?

The answer is nontraditional students take on less student debt.

“Financial reasons” is the top response for why nontraditional students didn’t attend or complete college right out of high school. The majority of non-traditional students chose their current programs because they were convenient and affordable. That doesn’t mean they’re not still carrying student loan debt from previous ventures.

Nontraditional students may leverage Pell Grants, scholarships, or private student loans if they don’t qualify for FAFSA. A growing number of schools are also offering income-share agreements.

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