Study shows that many Pa. college students are nontraditional

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa.— A study by Esther Prins, co-director of the Goodling Institute and the Institute for the Study of Adult Literacy, and her colleagues Cathy Kassab and Kimeka Campbell, challenges educators, researchers and policy makers to recalibrate their understanding of who college students are.

A recent study of Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) applicants from Pennsylvania found the average applicant was 24-years-old, 35 percent were adult learners, 40 percent were financially independent, and 16 percent were not single.

“Despite mounting evidence that non-traditional students are becoming the norm, financial aid policies and practices, higher education research and public discourse about college access and completion still assume a young, financially dependent, full-time student,” Prins said.

State financial aid policies do not reflect the financial needs and educational trajectories of non-traditional students, specifically adult learners and GED graduates.

“Adult learners and GED recipients are an untapped audience for creating an educated citizenry, yet many of them are ineligible for financial aid because they tend to study part-time and pursue degrees that last less than two years, such as professional development courses, certificates and job training,” Prins said.

Additionally, the study found that 40 percent of FAFSA applicants were in or near poverty, and about one in eight reported that they, a parent or spouse were a dislocated worker — that is, someone who has been laid off, is receiving unemployment benefits, and/or is a displaced homemaker, someone who previously provided unpaid services to the family who is no longer supported by the husband or wife.

“These findings suggest a high degree of economic vulnerability,” Prins said.

Family income has declined, but state funding for higher education has not kept pace with rising tuition, according to study findings. As a result, research suggests more students and families are taking out loans, there is greater student and family debt, and more students are working to pay for college.

The study also highlights the differences in the characteristics of distinct student subgroups. Beginning students, associate and certificate/diploma students, adult learners, and GED holders experienced more economic and educational disadvantage than their peers and were less likely to study full-time and to attend four-year institutions.

The study suggests that rural students, comprising 20 percent of FAFSA applicants, were under-represented compared to the Pennsylvania rural adult population with a high school credential. Prins said that this is consistent with research showing lower education attainment and college enrollment rates in rural Pennsylvania and nationally. In addition, rural students are significantly more likely to apply to public four-year institutions than their urban peers, primarily because Pennsylvania community colleges are concentrated in urban areas, according to a policy expert.

The research used data from 610,925 FASFA applicants from June 1, 2010, to June 30, 2011, (2010-11 fiscal year), which was provided by the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA).

To complement the data results, the researchers conducted interviews with financial aid administrators at six institutions in rural counties and with two higher education finance policy experts to provide program- and policy-relevant information regarding the socio-demographic characteristics and financial needs and status of Pennsylvania students, their families and communities.

The study, “Financial Needs and Characteristics of Students Pursuing Postsecondary Education in Pennsylvania: A Rural-Urban Analysis,” was funded by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania. The full study and executive summary are available on the Center for Rural Pennsylvania’s website.

Media Contacts: 

Esther Prins

Work Phone: 

Associate Professor of Education (Adult Education) and co-director for research, Institute for the Study of Adult Literacy and Goodling Institute for Research in Family Literacy

Last Updated August 25, 2016