EPI's weekly illustration of education data trends — April 20, 2016

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Are College Students Non-Traditional? Enrollment by Age Group, 1970 to 2023 (projected)


A lot of people talk about how "non-traditional" college students are these days. When they use this phrase, they typically talk about the age group, although other issues, like first generation and low-income also come to mind. But the conversation is more likely to cover how much older students are now than the "traditional" 18-24-year old group.

Across the board, there are a higher percentage of "older" students than there were 45 years ago (1970). But the numbers perhaps are not as striking as some might think. The graphics below separate students by full-time and part-time status. For full-time students, there is a larger aging trend in action. In 1970, 89 percent of students were 24-years old or younger. By 2012, this percentage dropped to 74 percent. However, the trend mostly flattened out after 1990. For full-time students in the 25- to 34-year old range, their share increased from 9 percent in 1970 to 15 percent in 1990 to 18 percent in 2012. They are projected to reach 20 percent—or one in five students—by 2023. For the seriously "old" students—those who are 35-years old and older—this group was almost non-existant in 1970 (2 percent), but rose to 6 percent in 1990 and 8 percent in 2012, and is expected to rise to 9 percent in 2023.

For part-time students, the trends are much more subtle and the graphic depicts a variation across years. While 37 percent of part-time students were of traditional age in 1970, that percentage declined to 26 percent in 1990 and rose back to 34 percent in 2012. Projections suggest this group will rise to 35 percent in 2023. The middle group—24- to 34-year olds—represented 39 percent of the part-time population in 1970 and declined to 34 percent in 2012. The older group of 35-years old and older rose from 24 to 32 percent between 1970 and 2012, but similarly will flatten out by 2023.

What does this all mean? For full-time students, while there has certainly been a trend toward older students attending colllege, a significant portion of students (three quarters) are still of traditional age today and by 2023 that will likely still represent 71 percent of the total full-time population. At the part-time level, about the same percentage of traditional-age students from 1970 will be distributed in 2023.

In the end, a majority of full-time students are traditional age students and will remain so. For part-time students, the split is fairly equally divided and consistent across the years.

Exhibit A. Full-time fall enrollment, by age, 1970 to 2023 (projected)

Exhibit B. Part-time fall enrollment, by age, 1970 to 2023 (projected)


SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Higher Education General Information Survey (HEGIS), "Fall Enrollment in Colleges and Universities" surveys, 1970 and 1980; Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), "Fall Enrollment Survey" (IPEDS-EF:90-99); IPEDS Spring 2001 through Spring 2012, Enrollment component; and Enrollment in Degree-Granting Institutions Projection Model, 1980 through 2023. U.S. Department of Commerce, Census Bureau, Current Population Survey (CPS), October, selected years, 1970 through 2012.