College Faces on the Average are Aging

Non-traditional students (often called NonTrads) are just about anyone who does not fit the stereotypical profile of one recently graduated from high school, moving on within three months to community college, college or university.  The NonTrads are in evidence in every class at most institutions of higher learning across the U.S. There are some obvious groups — retirees, members of the military, evening students, employees taking classes at their employer’s direction — who fit the NonTrad label. The Center for Education Statistics stated in 2011 there were 17.6 million undergraduates, of whom 38% percent were over the age of 25 and 25% percent were over the age of 30. That means across the country, less than half the undergraduates were under age 20. The predominance of NonTrads is projected to increase another 23% by 2019.  Atlantic magazine referred to these statistics in a 2011 article and concluded that the “most important trend in colleges is that the adult learner is on the rise.”  To specifically apply these statistics, the author looked at Carroll Community College in Westminster, Maryland. There the enrollment stats for fall 2011 showed that NonTrads ages forty years and older constituted 60% of the student body. In an average class of twenty-five students, that means ten people were under twenty years of age, twelve were between twenty and thirty-nine, and three were over forty.

Of course, the provision of continuing education and training to adult learners has long been the focus of planning and marketing efforts for community colleges. Their target audience is typically non-credit enrollees taking courses both onsite and/or online and includes adults pursuing workforce training, personal development, certification, and/or skills enhancement or development. At Carroll, 16% of this group is under 20 years of age, 10% are between 20 and 24, 20% are between 25 and 39, and 53% percent are over 40. The surprise in recent years is the increase of retirees who are not necessarily taking classes in pursuit of another degree, or another career move. These adult learners are NonTrads in their purpose as well as their age.

A recent trend in higher education is for people to begin studying towards a baccalaureate, stop for a period of time, and return to studies later in life. The administrative jargon for these students is to call them “stop-outs” and their degree will include transcripts from several colleges. The author is not surprised at this; as a divorced single mother of two in the 1970s, her bachelor of science took close to ten years and thirteen transcripts to completion.  So current students should take this as a realistic warning: the pursuit of an undergraduate degree is very often interrupted for a variety of reasons (health, finances, family life, work life). Colleges that facilitate this lifestyle maintain a policy of open admission, often developed specifically because of this trend. This trend, of becoming a “stop-out”, also contributes to the increasing numbers of NonTrads. 

At many schools the trend in the enrollment numbers is defined by full-time and part-time credit students.  Again, using Carroll Community College as the example, the 2011-2012 enrollment showed 1,647 students pursuing a degree full-time and 2,394 students pursuing a degree part-time. An interesting subset is that of the part-timers, 1,588 were female while 805 were male. Contrast that with the full-time gender split (894 female, 749 male) and it’s probably a good bet that the reason part-time women nearly double part-time men is due to child care and school schedules.

As schools tailor their activities, schedules and campuses to address the needs of NonTrads (child care, course schedules that accommodate public school schedules, online and video chat formats, on campus meal offerings, fitness facilities), the increasing enrollment stats of NonTrads becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. The Boomers retire but don’t feel old the way their parents were, and aren’t willing to become porch sitters. With the real value of state and federally subsidized tuition for Senior Citizens, and course offerings that stimulate the intellect, it is probably a good bet that Boomers will be pushing the average college sophomore for a place on the Dean’s list more and more often.