Only 16% of Students “Traditional”? Not exactly.

I was flipping through Mark Taylor’s book on the Crisis in Higher Education when I found this startling statistic:

Though the fact is rarely noted, the traditional four-year college whose students are eighteen to twenty-two years old is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. Only 16 percent of all students2 currently fall into this category; the majority of students are now over twenty-two.

Follow that footnote and you’ll find it comes from a book called The Last Professors, which states that:

The image of an 18-to-22-year old, full-time student in residence at a traditional college, however, is now a figment of the past, only 16 percent of all undergraduates fit that…

So this adds an important piece — unlike Taylor’s quote, the 16 percent here refers to students in residence halls, which changes the meaning of the statistic completely.

But is this even true? The cite for this is to a book called Future of the Public University in America by a guy named Womack, who says something similar:

He cites the 2002 NCES report on The Condition of Education, and doesn’t give a specific page number, but rather, just cites the entire chapter on Nontraditional Students to back up his claim.

Which would be good, I suppose, but nothing in that chapter mentions 16 percent of anything, or deals in any quantitative way with what proportion of students do not live on campus.

However, I did find this handy chart in another publication, which is supposedly based off NCES data. The upshot? All of that list (full time, live on campus, between the ages of 18 and 22) could be replaced by “live on campus”:

What we see here are two trends (and remember this data encompasses the roughly 50% of students that are going to community college). Younger students live at home more than on campus, and older students live off-campus independently more than on campus.

When you look at entering freshman to four-year institutions, however, the picture changes dramatically. I am not sure what the numbers of actual freshman who opt for dorm life, but the overwhelming preference of freshmen is to live on campus:

This desire, of course, fades a bit over time. But it’s worth noting that the student that is counted as a senior as a “non-traditional student” for living off campus likely came in as a freshman very excited about an on-campus residence. If that’s the case, are we really looking at non-traditional students here — or perhaps just seeing a common pattern of students outgrowing the residence halls as they move through college?

In any case, I think rumors of the death of the traditional student are a bit exaggerated. Certainly there’s a bit more nuance to the story than some would have you believe.  I think the residential experience is ripe for reimagining — but we should start by admitting that it is still very much in demand, at least in the early years of traditional four year programs.

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