January 2007

A periodic newsletter on a single topic of interest published by the Office of Higher Education

Nontraditional Students: An emerging segment of Minnesota's undergraduate population

Today, more than half of all college students in Minnesota exhibit some characteristics that do not fit the long-held definition of a traditional college student. These growing numbers of nontraditional students tend to be older, work more, are financially independent and often have children. They tend to describe themselves as employees first, fitting their college course schedule around their jobs rather than fitting work around school.

This issue of Insight provides information about the characteristics of nontraditional students in Minnesota. Based on the 2004 National Postsecondary Student Aid Survey administered by the U.S. Department of Education, the report provides more information on a group of students who have historically been considered a marginal population in higher education.

Defining Nontraditional Students

Nontraditional students exhibit a variety of characteristics. The commonly-used definition of a nontraditional undergraduate student is one who has one or more of the following characteristics1:

  • Delays enrollment in college after graduation from high school;
  • Attends part time for at least part of the academic year;
  • Works full time while enrolled;
  • Is considered financially independent for purposes of determining eligibility for financial aid;
  • Has children;
  • Is a single parent; or
  • Completed high school with a GED or other high school completion certificate or did not complete high school.

A 1996 National Center of Education Statistics publication focusing on nontraditional students introduced a definition of nontraditional student that moved beyond the conventional definition, which has been based solely on a few demographic characteristics such as age2. This definition presented "nontraditional" student status as a continuum based on the number of these characteristics present. Students are considered to be "minimally nontraditional" if they have only one nontraditional characteristic, "moderately nontraditional" if they have two or three, and "highly nontraditional" if they have four or more.

Figure 1: Undergraduates with nontraditional characteristics in Minnesota

The figure above shows the percentages of undergraduate students with nontraditional characteristics in Minnesota. Almost 60 percent of all undergraduate students had at least one nontraditional characteristic. The most common characteristic was financial independence; 43 percent of all undergraduates were considered financially independent of their parents. More than a quarter of all undergraduate students worked full time (27 percent). A significant portion of undergraduate students had children while attending college (23 percent).

Nontraditional status less common in Minnesota than U.S.

While the majority of Minnesota undergraduates exhibited some nontraditional characteristics, the state's undergraduate population was still fairly traditional compared to the overall U.S. population. Nationally, only 30 percent of undergraduates were considered traditional students. A substantial percent of students exhibited multiple nontraditional characteristics; 32 percent were moderately nontraditional and 19 percent were highly nontraditional.

Figure 2: Nontraditional status in the U.S. and Minnesota

Public two-year sector had largest percentage with nontraditional characteristics

Nontraditional students varied substantially across the institution types. Approximately 75 percent of the students in the public two-year sector had nontraditional characteristics. The public four-year and private not-for-profit four-year institutions had a fairly traditional undergraduate body with less than half of the students with nontraditional characteristics. The largest proportion of traditional undergraduates was in the private not-for-profit four-year sector (62 percent).

Figure 3: Nontraditional status of undergraduates in Minnesota by institution Type

Highly nontraditional students often consider themselves employees who study

Overall, a large percent of students work while enrolled as undergraduates (83 percent)3. However, as the number of nontraditional students in the undergraduate population changes, a substantial portion of this population exhibits higher employment intensity, often working full time.

Figure 4: Undergraduate Students' Perceptions of their primary role: employees or students?

When asked how students view their primary role, more than half of all highly nontraditional undergraduates considered themselves primarily employees who study (52 percent). Among the moderately nontraditional group, 43 percent considered themselves employees who study. Interestingly, four percent of traditional undergraduates described themselves as employees who study even though traditional student status means that these students worked on a part-time basis.

Effects of working on academic performance as reported by undergraduates in Minnesota

Negative effect on gradesNo effect on gradesPositive effect on grades
All undergraduates39%38%24%
Minimally nontraditional39%38%24%
Moderately nontraditional47%31%22%
Highly nontraditional57%31%12%

A significant percent of nontraditional students viewed themselves as primarily employees, meaning that these students gave priority to their allocation of time and energy to their employment. Emphasizing work over school could have potentially adverse effects on student performance (table above). The majority of highly nontraditional students reported that work negatively affected their grades (57 percent) while only 12 percent reported that work had positive effects on their academics. Overall, 39 percent of all undergraduates reported that work negatively impacted their grades while 24 percent reported that work positively benefited their grades. While the percent of students perceiving a negative impact from work on their studies was greatest for moderately and highly nontraditional students, a large percent of all students feel some negative effects of work on their academic performance.

Employment during college could provide several benefits such as career preparation; unfortunately, such benefits are not recognized by most working students in Minnesota. The table below reports whether or not working helped students with their career preparation. In general, for all undergraduates, 80 percent of those who had a job reported that the work did not help with their career preparation. The percentages are slightly higher for moderately and highly nontraditional students with 84 and 88 percent respectively reporting the same effect.

Responses of employed undergraduates in Minnesota to the question, "Does working help with career preparation?"

All undergraduates20%80%
Minimally nontraditional25%75%
Moderately nontraditional16%84%
Highly nontraditional12%88%


The undergraduate population in Minnesota continues to undergo major shifts4. More than half of all undergraduate students in Minnesota displayed some nontraditional characteristics in the 2003-04 academic year. This change in the demographics creates a more diverse student body, different from historical ideas that college students were more homogeneous in their backgrounds and attributes. As new policies are developed, the varying needs and backgrounds of these students should be recognized.

Data Notes

This Insight is part of a series of publications focusing on the current state of post-secondary education in Minnesota. This work is based on the NCES publication "Findings from the Condition of Education 2002: Nontraditional Undergraduates" by Susan Choy (nces.ed.gov/pubs2002/2002012.pdf). This report provides similar information for undergraduates enrolled in post-secondary institutions in Minnesota.

The estimates presented in this article are based on data from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Survey 2002-04 (NPSAS). The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) of the U.S. Department of Education administered NPSAS. The survey aims to understand how students and their families finance education and to assess certain characteristics of students enrolled in postsecondary education. NPSAS does not contain representative data for the for-profit institutions at the state level. The state samples are representative only for students attending public two-year, public four-year and private not-for-profit four-year institutions. Thus, the estimates in this report pertain to these three institution types.

Several graphs contain bars showing standard errors. These bars represent the 95 percent confidence interval of the estimates (which are approximately two standard errors below and above the average). The bars are used to indicate the magnitude of the standard error for estimates.

All estimates of percents are rounded to the nearest whole number.


  1. Defined in "Nontraditional Undergraduates:, Trends in Enrollment from 1986 to 1992 and Persistence and Attainment Among 1989-90 Beginning Postsecondary Students", 1996, National Center for Education Statistics
    nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=97578. [ back ]
  2. "Nontraditional Undergraduates:, Trends in Enrollment from 1986 to 1992 and Persistence and Attainment Among 1989-90 Beginning Postsecondary Students", 1996, National Center for Education Statistics
    nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=97578. [ back ]
  3. Minnesota Office of Higher Education, Insight, December 2006, "Student employees: The majority of undergraduates work while enrolled in school," based on the NPSAS 2003-2004 data set
    www.ohe.state.mn.us/rsPg.cfm?pageID=1664. [ back ]
  4. Minnesota Office of Higher Education report, "Minnesota Undergraduate Demographics: Characteristics of Post-secondary students" discusses the undergraduate student population in detail
    www.ohe.state.mn.us/pdf/demographicV7.pdf. [ back ]

About the Office of Higher Education

The Office of Higher Education is a state agency providing students with financial aid programs and information to help them gain access to post-secondary education. The agency serves as the state's clearinghouse for data, research and analysis on post-secondary enrollment, financial aid, finance and trends.

The Minnesota State Grant program, which is administered by the agency, is a need-based tuition assistance program for Minnesota students. The agency also oversees tuition reciprocity programs, a student loan program, Minnesota's 529 college savings program, licensing and an early awareness outreach initiative for youth. Through collaboration with systems and institutions, the agency assists in the development of the state's education technology infrastructure and shared library resources.


Defining Nontraditional Students

Nontraditional status less common in Minnesota than U.S.

Public two-year sector had largest percentage with nontraditional characteristics

Highly nontraditional students often consider themselves employees who study


Data Notes


Undergraduate employment in the U.S.

Choosing degrees based on employment and income [subscription required]

Low-income students juggling work and school

Low-income students, work and college

Part-time students in Indiana


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Shefali Mehta
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Barb Schlaefer
Director of Communications