Today's College Students Aren't Who You Think They Are

Sep 4, 2018
Originally published on February 25, 2019 11:10 am

Popular culture tells us that college "kids" are recent high school graduates, living on campus, taking art history, drinking too much on weekends, and (hopefully) graduating four years later.

But these days that narrative of the residential, collegiate experience is way off, says Alexandria Walton Radford, who heads up postsecondary education research at RTI International, a think tank in North Carolina. What we see on movie screens and news sites, she says, is skewed to match the perceptions of the elite: journalists, researchers, policymakers.

Today's college student is decidedly nontraditional — and has been for a while. "This isn't a new phenomenon," Radford says. "We've been looking at this since 1996."

So, what do we know about these "typical" college students of today?

Radford has done a lot of research on this and defines the nontraditional student as having one or more of the following characteristics:

  • Financially independent from their parents
  • Having a child or other dependent
  • Being a single caregiver
  • Lacking a traditional high school diploma
  • Delaying postsecondary enrollment
  • Attending school part time
  • Being employed full time

Close to 74 percent of undergrads fall into one of these categories — and about a third have two or three. "I don't think people have got their heads wrapped around that yet," Radford says.

So here's a snapshot of the 17 million Americans enrolled in undergraduate higher education, according to numbers culled by the National Center for Education Statistics.

  • 1 in 5 is at least 30 years old
  • About half are financially independent from their parents
  • 1 in 4 is caring for a child
  • 47 percent go to school part time at some point
  • A quarter take a year off before starting school
  • 2 out of 5 attend a two-year community college
  • 44 percent have parents who never completed a bachelor's degree

As demographics shift, Radford argues, policy should follow.

It's vital that institutions look at the characteristics of their undergrad cohorts, she adds, to explore how to address their students' unique concerns.

Perhaps that means offering services like financial aid, advising or tutoring after-hours (instead of the typical 9 to 5). Maybe it means offering child care for student-parents, or extra parking for commuters.

One thing for sure, says Radford, is that it's probably time to coin a new phrase for nontraditional students, considering they are the new normal.

The NPR Ed team will be covering the challenges and triumphs of today's higher ed students this year, as part of a new project called the Changing Face of College.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit


The nontraditional college student has become traditional. Of 17 million students attending college this fall, most have some way in which they do not fit the classic model of the recent high school grad with their parents' support. NPR's Elissa Nadworny reports.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: It's fall orientation at Anoka-Ramsey, a two-year community college just north of Minneapolis. Students are lining up to get their official college ID.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: So Erin, on three, we're going to click a photo.

NADWORNY: Erin McKenna is a 19-year-old with bleached blond hair. She takes a seat in front of the camera.


NADWORNY: And flashes a big grin.


NADWORNY: She still can't believe this thing, college, is really happening for her.

ERIN MCKENNA: I originally wasn't going to go to college.

NADWORNY: Erin has been homeless and just assumed college was too expensive. After high school, she spent a year working. And then a friend suggested she look into the local community college.

MCKENNA: I started doing a little more research on it 'cause I'm like, there's no way it's this cheap. There's no way (laughter). And there was a way. It was very affordable.

NADWORNY: She was able to pick classes that left her room to work full time at a pizza shop.

MCKENNA: Now I'm giving it a shot and seeing if I can do it.


NADWORNY: The machine spits out her ID.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Welcome to Anoka-Ramsey. You're official.

MCKENNA: I look scared (laughter).

NADWORNY: Students like Erin are perhaps not what you'd think of as typical college students. She's not right out of high school. She doesn't live in a dorm, and she's not getting money from her parents. But Erin actually has a lot in common with the average undergrad today.

ALEXANDRIA WALTON RADFORD: Being financially independent from their parents, delaying postsecondary enrollment by more than a year, working full time while enrolled...

NADWORNY: That's Alexandria Walton Radford, who directs the center for postsecondary education at RTI International. Other characteristics of nontraditional students, having a child.

WALTON RADFORD: ...Being a single parent, not having a traditional high school diploma.

NADWORNY: Or attending school part time. Walton Radford's research shows that 74 percent of undergrads have one of these characteristics. For nearly a third of college students, two or three of these ring true.

WALTON RADFORD: What we think of as nontraditional is really the majority of students now.

NADWORNY: More than a quarter of students are taking care of a child. One in 5 are over the age of 30. About half of undergrads are financially independent from their parents.

WALTON RADFORD: Think of the added stresses and pressures that that can create when you're attending school.

NADWORNY: Erin McKenna waited a year before enrolling. About a third of undergrads do this, taking a year or more off before starting school. And that can make academics challenging. Even remembering how to study can be hard. And starting up again can come with a lot of emotional baggage, too. Here's Erin.

MCKENNA: It takes a lot to say to yourself that you're not limited to what kind of cards you've been dealt in life, that you can get a better hand or gain the upper hand.

NADWORNY: So what does this all mean for colleges and how to help these students graduate? Walton Radford says schools need to look to students' specific needs.

WALTON RADFORD: You know, how many of your students are working full time? That should affect not just when you offer courses but when you're offering these support services.

NADWORNY: Like advisers, financial aid officers and tutors.

WALTON RADFORD: You know, offering support services from 9 to 5 may not be that helpful.

NADWORNY: Walton Radford says schools may need to invest in child care or expand parking options for commuter students. And while we're at it, maybe we need a better term than nontraditional, considering those qualities are now the new normal.

Elissa Nadworny, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.