The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
May 21, 2015

"Traditional" college students are not disappearing

May 21, 2015

It is good news that postsecondary institutions and policymakers are paying attention to the needs of undergraduate students who are older than the “traditional” 18-to-24 year-old college students. We should ensure that these students have the structures and supports they need to earn degrees and certificates, whether or not they enroll full time.

But despite widespread perceptions to the contrary, “traditional” students are not disappearing from America’s college campuses. If anything, their presence is growing slightly. In fall 2013, 69 percent of undergraduate students were age 24 or younger. Twenty years earlier, only 62 percent were this young. The share of undergraduates age 35 or older fell from 16 percent in 1993 to 15 percent in 2003 and to 13 percent in 2013.

Between 2009 and 2011, when total undergraduate enrollment exploded as the economy tanked, enrollment did shift somewhat toward older students. But as the economy has recovered, older adults have returned to the labor force, while recent high school graduates continue to enroll in college at similar rates.

Age is not the only criterion by which “non-traditional” students are characterized. Some commentary also assumes that students are increasingly enrolling on a part-time basis. But the share of undergraduates enrolling full time actually increased from 58 percent in 1993 to 62 percent in 2003 and 63 percent in 2013.

What about the picture of families loading up the car to deliver their kids to dormitories? No trend emerges from comparing students who first enrolled in college in 1989-90, 1995-96, and 2003-04. Just under 30 percent of students—and about 40 percent of those who were age 19 or younger—started out living on campus in each of these cohorts.

National and state postsecondary policies should support students of all ages and adapt to their differing needs, as should colleges and universities, but there is much to be said for going to college immediately after high school. Students who follow this pattern are more likely to earn degrees, particularly four-year degrees. Among students first enrolling in 2003-04, 40 percent of those who were age 20 or younger had earned bachelor’s degrees by 2009, compared with 6 percent of older students. The older students were more likely than younger students both to have earned associate degrees or certificates and to still be enrolled, but over half the older students had left school without a credential, compared with 29 percent of younger students.

Although college improves the lives of most students of any age, younger students may be able to better use college as a time to grow personally and intellectually. They face less time pressure than older students, who generally carry greater family and work responsibilities. Younger students also have more time to benefit from the higher earnings associated with college degrees.

Half of all undergraduates are full-time students under the age of 24. Expanding college opportunities to include older students need not obscure the needs of recent high school graduates.

Photo by Elise Amendola/AP

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