Do We Over-Invest in Non-Traditional Students?

hazel soares.jpgHere’s a scary statistic about American higher-ed: more than 40 percent of college students don’t graduate. But that number hides enormous variations in drop-out behavior. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center has issued a “state supplement” report filled with interesting statistics; Here are some:

  • Completion rates are vastly lower for part-time students relative to full-time ones;
  • Students attending private schools are more likely to graduate than those at public institutions;
  • Far more two-year public college students fail to complete their degree than successfully do so;
  • Interstate variations in completion rates are large;
  • Roughly 20 percent of those completing schools graduate from an institution different than the one they originally attended, although that proportion is lower at four-year schools;
  • Those entering colleges right out of high school are much more likely to get a degree in six years than those who wait to attend college;
  • Women are more likely to complete school then men.


At academic gatherings, you often hear that a majority of students today are “non-traditional” -going to school part-time, often much older than the 18- to 24-year-old students dominating residential college campuses. Yet these non-traditional students have dramatically lower completion rates than kids entering college out of high school. About 34 percent of students under 20 years old entering college full -time at public institutions in 2007 failed to graduate by 2013; for persons over 24, the proportion was 53 percent. The statistics are even more dramatic regarding full- vs. part-time students. More than 86 percent of full-time four-year students do graduate within six years —but barely 20 percent of part-time students do. To be sure, it takes longer to get a degree attending part-time. Yet over two-thirds of part-time students entering in 2007 not only had no degree by 2013, but were not in school.

This convinces me that perhaps we should reduce subsidies for part-time or older students. Younger students have more than a 40-year work lifetime expectancy after graduation; older students often have 20 years or less. The economic and noneconomic benefits of a degree are far smaller for older students because they enjoy them for fewer years —and there is a far greater risk they won’t graduate. Encouraging older students to attend school part-time strikes me as questionable, something pushed by colleges facing enrollment shortfalls desperate for more bodies in the classroom.
Most (86 percent) entering four-year colleges full time graduate within six years. For two-year schools, only 58 percent do -the non-graduate proportion (42 percent) is triple of that at four-year schools. To be sure, half of community college receiving diplomas have gone on and aimed for a four-year degree, and over 40 percent of the non-graduates are still attending college. Still, the huge financial advantage associated with low-cost community colleges is considerably offset by the greater non-completion risk. I still think that entering community colleges and transferring to four-year schools works for many and saves lots of money, but support of this approach must be tempered by reality: lots of community college kids never graduate.
Students attending four-year non-profit private schools full-time have about a 20 percent lower dropout rate than those attending public universities. Including part-time students, the differential is greater: the non-completion rate at public schools (36.6 percent) is more than one-third higher than at private ones (27.1 percent).

Why? I think there are two factors at work. First, on average, private schools are more selective. They do a better job screening out students whose probability of academic success is low, based on high school performance or test scores. Second, on average, students at private schools have more skin in the game -more of their own money at risk because of higher tuition fees. To me, given the underemployment of many recent graduates, this suggests we should reduce enrollment by lowering subsidies to less successful public institutions.

Not only are a majority of college students female, but dropout rates are also higher among males: the six-year completion rate at four-year schools, including part-timers, was 67.3 percent for women, compared with 59.5 percent for men. I have a controversial explanation: the welfare state has neutered American men. The male role as provider and protector has been reduced by the expanding female role in society; also, work has been downgraded by entitlements, and males historically are the main workers. Men are losing their way, particularly among minority populations.

15-20 percent of students change schools and then graduate. (The NSC has reliable data on this.) Would the proportion rise dramatically if institutional barriers to mobility relating to graduation requirements were dramatically reduced?

Looking at full-time students at four-year public schools, fewer than 10 percent of those in Iowa and Virginia failed to complete degrees in six years. The proportion is over three times as great (more than 30 percent) in Utah, Montana, Idaho, Nevada, Idaho, Arkansas and West Virginia. Why did more than 20 percent not complete degrees in New York, but only 13-15 percent in neighboring New Jersey, Connecticut, and Vermont?  Among big Sun Belt states, why did 23 percent not graduate in Texas, but only 15 percent in Florida and barely 12 percent in California?   I don’t have ready answers, but it is worth exploring.

(Photo: 94 year old Hazel Soares graduates from Mills College. Source: WSU.)

12 thoughts on “Do We Over-Invest in Non-Traditional Students?”

  1. The information that you have provided is very insightful. Being a nontraditional student was hard, even for me when I went back to college at 32 years old. I did finally graduate with a B.A. in Communications. It was worth it. Thanks for sharing!

  2. “Would the proportion rise dramatically if institutional barriers to mobility relating to graduation requirements were dramatically reduced? ”
    I think this one factor impacts many of your data points.
    The longer it takes you to complete a degree, the more likely it is that it will be difficult for you to remain at a single institution.
    The more difficult it is to compile a degree out of credit work completed at multiple institutions, the greater the leakage will be as the timeline extends.

  3. I was a non-traditional student, after goofing off my first go-round at college. The economy at the time (1993-1995) was not in the crapper at the time, so I am not sure I would recommend the same thing to people today, but I went to school after my job was eliminated.
    I also got no subsidies, so I guess I don’t really have an opinion about that.
    What I did was bust my rear to do 3 years of a 4 year degree in 2 years, since I had one year under my belt. I worked, I was married, and I commuted an hour to school, and another hour back. I liked what I was studying, and it was luckily an area (chemistry) with an historically low unemployment rate.
    So there were factors besides the fact the school seemed to watch out for non-traditional students, helping them (not financially, but with dealing with the demands of returning to school) that contributed to my success over all, but I appreciate the attitude the school took.
    I landed a job, made some dough for a year, then went back for a PhD in chemistry. I’ve been employed in industry since my 1.5 year post doc ended.
    I don’t have anything to say about subsidies. But I was highly encouraged. The school bent over backwards to help me juggle things. They let me take more hours than were allowed. They identified, and encouraged, non-traditional students. I saw this work for a lot of others, too. So that kind of investment, whatever it takes to know you have non-trads in your ranks, and knowing what they are up against, and keeping us in mind, made some difference. That’s my anecdotal data point.

  4. The one thing that sticks out to me about FT students in Utah/Idaho/Nevada: the Mormon “I got my MRS degree” effect may be to blame in part, as may a general cultural resistance to going into debt (which may also help explain Vermont/Montana/WVa.) Also, a statistically significant percentage of Utah men ages 18-21 take 24 months off from school to go on missions; only in the last year has it been feasible for most of them to actually wait till returning from their missions to start school.
    Most of my female Mormon friends who got married in college did, in fact, finish their degrees, incidentally. But a lot of their freshman-year roommates did not – and the ones who go to (public) Weber State/University of Utah/etc. are less academically prepared than (private) BYU students, as a group.
    In any case, I personally went to Ohio State, and none of the girls from truly rural and truly urban areas finished in six years. Of course, very few made it to sophomore year. My sister’s roommates at BGSU who got married or pregnant also dropped out. My understanding from more-recent OSU grads is that those folks are a lot less-common than they were fifteen years ago, but the rest of the public schools haven’t become nearly selective enough to eliminate the effects I saw back in the day.

  5. The other obvious reason for lower completion rates at CCs and such is that the lower cost of such institutions attracts the uncertain student – not sure if college is right for them, they try it out as cheaply as possible. Those that find higher education useful transfer to better schools and finish, those that don’t move on to other things.
    Surely such students are better served by having the cost of this trial period (both the direct financial cost and the loss of earnings as a full-time student) be as low as possible. Strictly from a cost perspective, the relative completion rates would allow a 2 year institution to generate the same number of graduates as a 4 year private school per first year tuition $ if the CC cost 2/3rds the private school. In reality, the cost is far less than that.
    Obviously no one wants students to waste time and money on a futile quest for a degree. But at least some of the students who cannot meet the criteria for admission to a private school straight out of high school are capable of completing a degree program. Providing the “maybes” with an affordable option to investigate the possibility can easily be a net benefit, even if more of them wash out in the process.

  6. My own feeling as a non-traditional student is that the best way to help returning and non-traditional students who are at school with the goal of getting a degree is to provide some of those career services usually available in high schools such as testing and career counseling. If this could be combined with advice on how to most quickly and efficiently reach your goals a lot of discouragement and frustration could be avoided.
    After all, we’re not here to discover ourselves and generally don’t care a bit for the notion of “campus life.” We already know who we are and we have lives. We’ve decided that we need a degree. We’re probably more aware than most of the debt we’re adding to every semester.
    Sure there are lots of us who seem not to be able to decide what direction to take ourselves… some good advisement might help… and for those who do know what direction and have a clear goal in mind… some good information might help so that we don’t waste our time and money, give up, and return to the workforce still without our degree.

  7. This is written as if the only goal of higher education is to produce diplomas used as work credentials – a very narrow viewpoint.
    People may go to college just for knowledge, and they may get that without a degree.

  8. Of course then there are people like me who returned to school at 35. My first two years I attended a Community College not to get any kind of degree but to refresh my basic skills and fulfill some of the basic requirements for an eventual BS in Biology and a second BA in Computer Science. I was not alone in this approach, even back in the early 90s so I guess I am one of those CC dropouts that didn’t get my degree from the CC.

  9. You are right that if you don’t complete as a full time student right out of high school (or even military) you may not complete a degree. Be careful about generalizing too much about local variations. In Utah/Idaho/Nevada and Montana young Mormon HS Grads used to be at least 19-20 to go on a Church mission. So they went to college for a year before going (few waited to graduate first). Many never went back. The Mormon church just lowered the age requirement so many H.S. grads will skip school entirely (which will increase graduation rates).
    For the Northeast the picture is less clear but more important. NYS has a huge number of state colleges, some good but many mediocre. Also places like CUNY did the whole open enrollment thing. My guess is the ease of admission contributes a great deal.
    For all others, elimination of the added diversity type courses would shave a semester off of the time to graduate (and improve student outcomes)

  10. Is “completion” defined as “completing the student’s educational goals”, or as “obtained the proper 2-year or 4-year degree”?
    I ask because quite a few students enroll in order to take specific courses, not to get a degree – for work or for personal interest. This is particularly true at community colleges but also happens at 4-year institutions, and it would confound the data – and would be particularly likely to show up in the “nontraditional student” groups.
    I don’t think you can eliminate this without doing a survey on educational goals to determine which students actually enrolled in pursuit of a degree.

  11. My experience as a non-traditional student was one of complete horror at what was passed as scholarship at the state university I was attending. I’d heard the stories of the “brainwashing” that goes on, but scoffed and thought it probably overblown. To my utter and horrible amazement it was far worse than even gets reported or talked about on the the Right’s websites. I lasted a year and got tired of trying to inject reality into the classes only to get scoffed at, made fun of, etc., by the professors and the blank, bovine, cud chewing faces of the students.

  12. The irony here is that Vedder’s care in trying to craft the most efficient use of funds to support effective higher education is totally foreign to the practices of the Obama Administration.
    Fixated on the romantic notion that “everyone should go to college,” the Obama regime seems hell bent on lowering every standard and increasing ever stipend no matter how contrary to the reality of any benefit to the student or society itself.

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