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Dec. 8, 2014

Nontraditional students struggle to graduate

By Jaychelle Willis

Amanda Wright, a sophomore at Cleveland State University, sits doing homework for a class on the third floor of the Michael Schwartz Library. Distracted, Wright takes her focus off of her work to tend to Cassie, her school-age daughter who is requesting to see her smartphone to play games.

Due to scheduling differences, Cassie had to tag along with her mother to school.

At age 26, this is Wright’s first time back in college since 2007. Wright dropped out of college after her freshman year to focus on her family. Almost seven years later, Wright said it is more difficult to manage her education and other commitments.

“It’s hard sometimes when I have to juggle between my education and my personal responsibilities outside of here [Cleveland State],” she said.

Wright, like many other non-first-time students, faces many challenges when returning to college. With outside responsibilities facing them during their day-to-day life, they often find it hard to maintain both — causing them to drop out again, or take longer to complete their degree.

Many non-first-time students are usually nontraditional students — not a first-time college student. A nontraditional student can be anyone who did not immediately continue their education after graduating from high school, attended college only part time, works full time (35 hours or more per week), is financially independent and has children or dependents other than a spouse and/or is a single parent.

With these factors in place, added to the already time consuming lifestyle of college, many non-first-time students face a greater challenge completing their degree compared to first-time students, according to a national survey released by the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA).

The study found that only about a third of students who re-enrolled in college between 2005 and 2008 completed their degree.The study, based on National Student Clearinghouse Research Center data of 4.5 million non-first-time students, found that only 33.7 percent of those students who re-entered college finished their degree compared to the 54.1 percent of first-time students. The completion rates for those students at public four-year universities and community colleges was 27 percent lower than for first-time students.

The study was conducted by InsideTrack, American Council on Education, NASPA, Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education and the University Professional and Continuing Education Association.
Dave Jarrat, the organizer of the study and vice president of Marketing at student coaching service InsideTrack, said he was amazed with the study’s findings.

“It was no surprise that there was a difference between non-first-time students and traditional students, but I was a little surprised by the magnitude of that difference,” Jarrat said to InsideHigherEd.

These findings suggest that there is a disconnect between the university and non-first-time students — especially nontraditional students, which account for 75 to 80 percent of all incoming college students, according to the study’s researchers.

The number of Americans age 18 to 21 — the traditional college age — has decreased by nearly 700,000 since 2011 — from 18.1 to 17.4 million — according to research from the University of Virginia. With this decline, many colleges could turn to older, non-first-time students to maintain enrollment numbers and financial goals.