At Penn Foster, we hear inspiring stories every day about how our graduates have overcome tremendous odds to achieve their goals. Though most of our students may be considered "nontraditional' by conventional standards, we serve them because we believe that quality, affordable education should be a right, and not a privilege. Now, with new data from the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics, we're seeing a shift in what's considered "traditional' in the current undergraduate student population in the United States. Penn Foster has been serving the needs of "nontraditional" students for over 125 years, starting out by offering correspondence courses through weekly newspapers, to a brick-and-mortar school, eventually transforming into the online school it is today.

The Recent Data

Recent data from NCES shows a consistent and growing result from the majority of undergraduate students from recent decades. Information from undergraduates from the 2011-2012 academic year, (the most recent undergraduate information available) shows that 74 percent of students from this class had at least one "nontraditional' characteristic.1 The report states that researchers define a "nontraditional' characteristic as:

  • Being independent for financial aid purposes
  • Having one or more dependents
  • Being a single caregiver
  • Not having a traditional high school diploma
  • Delaying postsecondary enrollment
  • Attending school part time
  • Being employed full time

19% of students from this pool had one nontraditional characteristic, while 31% of students had 2-3 nontraditional characteristics, and an astonishing 24% of students had 4 or more nontraditional characteristics. What's more, "this result is consistent over recent decades: since 1995"96, at least 70 percent of undergraduates possessed at least one nontraditional characteristic," states the report. This goes to show that despite commonly-held views, "nontraditional' characteristics have been the norm for quite some time.

Adverse Life Experiences

In a similar vein, GradNation's most recent report, "Don't Quit On Me' discusses what happens to high school students who display similar "nontraditional' characteristics. The GradNation report deems these characteristics "adverse life experiences,' or ALEs, including experiencing homelessness or poverty, early parenthood, or having major health issues. The report found that the more ALEs a student experiences, the higher the risk of their interrupted enrollment from high school.

Even with support from family, friends, and school, high school students who have gone through high levels of adversity are at risk of interrupted enrollment, the GradNation report explains. ALEs can affect young people earlier on, interrupting their high school enrollment, and ultimately lowering their chances of traditional post-secondary education. Undergraduate students who experience similar struggles are turning more and more to alternative outlets for education.

It seems only logical that the more "nontraditional' qualities a student possesses, the more likely they are likely to enroll in online undergraduate programs, in order to find a flexible education solution.2

Why It's Important We Redefine "Traditional"

Young people are faced with so many challenges and roadblocks today; it is imperative that education providers--traditional and ed tech, public and private alike--provide many different pathways for students to access high school and postsecondary education. What's more:

As a business, you have to cater to your audience in order to tap into relevant markets. It only makes the most sense moving forward to dig deep into learning about the new "traditional' student, as this cohort will be the new norm.

As an education provider, we have taken it upon ourselves to provide relevant education for today's learner, which means reaching students who need flexible solutions.

As caring citizens, it is our civic duty to do what we can in order to meet the needs of today's generation, so that they may have better opportunities to access education and better themselves than generations before.   

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Resources: Photo credit. (1) Demographic and Enrollment Characteristics of Nontraditional Undergraduates (2) NECS Data: Most College Students are 'Nontraditional'