NCES data on ‘non-traditional’ learners: DELO’s role in serving today’s learners

In DELO we are always looking for data to inform our work with students. We were especially excited to see a briefing from the NCES on information we already knew, today’s students are more diverse and less ‘traditional’ than ever!

Recently the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) released a brief on the characteristics that today’s contemporary learners possess. Please note the use of the term ‘contemporary learners’. We in DELO believe this term is more inclusive than ‘post-traditional’, ‘non-traditional’ or ‘adult learners’ as these terms are comparative to a norm, traditional students. Also, these terms serve to identify the ‘otherness’ of students that are not native four-year students that enrolled immediately after high school, essentially marginalizing these students. If you’ve had a chance to read the NCES brief, that norm simply does not exist anymore, at least not to the extent many would believe.

The brief compares historical data from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS), conducted by the NCES. These studies are “comprehensive, nationally representative surveys of how students finance their postsecondary education.” (pg. 2) The NPSAS includes demographic and enrollment information. The study used variables such as attendance status, delayed postsecondary enrollment, number of dependents, employment and several others which contribute to defining non-traditional students during the academic years of 1995 – 2012.

The NCES brief is interesting for a lot of reasons, specifically for the summative information on characteristics that have been used to define ‘non-traditional’ students for years.

Number of nontraditional (1) characteristics (2011-2012)
Zero: 26.2%
One: 18.7%
Two or three: 31.3%
Four or more : 23.8%

What does this data tell us? That ‘traditional’ students comprise a little over a quarter of the undergraduate students served in postsecondary education. Also included in the brief is additional data on other undergraduate student characteristics. In this same data we see that 27.5% of students have dependents (15.2% are single with dependents), 34.2% of students delayed their enrollment in postsecondary education more than one year after high school, 43.4% were enrolled exclusively part-time, and 25.9% worked full-time.

What else does this data tell us? That DELO’s mission of supporting academic departments to offer convenient and flexible learning opportunities to students is more important now that ever! It’s through our work in the community with businesses and organizations that many contemporary learners are exposed to WKU. Because DELO is an independent division within academic affairs, we have the opportunity work with all colleges and departments to create interdisciplinary solutions for learners. DELO staff members help design programs that will meet the needs learners and provide access to WKU!

WKU has been providing this access for decades. In five more years we’ll celebrate the 100th anniversary of WKU On Demand. While the name of that unit has changed through the years, the mission has not, to provide access to WKU instruction in a non-term based and distance learning format. In a few short weeks we’ll launch the first modularlized, personalized learning bachelor-completion program in the commonwealth of Kentucky. WKU’s innovative advanced manufacturing degree is designed exclusively for contemporary college students.

Distance learning has proven to be an excellent option for students with dependents, students with schedules that prevent them from enrolling in day classes, and students with other barriers to their learning. WKU has been strategic in the development and sustainability of distance learning by creating a model that funds the supports required for distance learners, as well as faculty, and by including distance learning in the University’s strategic plan, Challenging the Spirit (p.12). These efforts have paid off as WKU leads the public four-year institutions in the state in the number of distance learning course and programs offered. This work was further validated this year by US News and World Report, which recognized WKU as the #2 online bachelor degree program in the country (

DELO supports cohort and corporate training that extends WKU’s reach throughout the region and directly into companies that need customized degree and non-degree options for learners. These entrepreneurial efforts serve 100s of learners each year, contemporary learners that would otherwise be excluded from a relationship with WKU.

DELO excels at fostering relationships: relationships with academic departments, relationships with employers, and relationships with contemporary learners. DELO’s support, through the online student resource portal which is accessible to all students, is designed for contemporary learners who often find universities a confusing cluster of offices and people. Distance Learning instructional designers help faculty design their courses for the contexts of their learners. Academic Outreach and Distance Learning student support staff recruit and help retain students, operating almost invisibly to ensure that students enroll at WKU are prepared to engage with faculty and be self-directed learners.

We’re pleased that the NCES released a brief on what they term ‘non-traditional learners’. For us in DELO, our mission remains the same, to serve all learners, especially contemporary learners, and remove barriers to their postsecondary goals.


(1) “Seven characteristics identify nontraditional students: being independent for financial aid purposes, having one or more dependents, being a single caregiver, not having a traditional high school diploma, delaying postsecondary enrollment, attending school part time, and being employed full time.” (page 7)


National Center for Education Statistics (2015). Web Tables: Demographics and enrollment characteristics of non-traditional undergraduates 2011-2012. Retrieved from Natonal Center for Education Statistics:

US News and World Report (2015). Best online programs. Retrieved from US News and World Report:

Western Kentucky University (2012). Challenging the spirit action plan 2012-2013 to 2017-2018. Retrieved from

About Julie Uranis

As the director of Distance Learning and Continuing & Professional Development, Julie Uranis is responsible for the overall operations and strategic direction of proctored testing, WKU On Demand, instructional design, Career and Workforce Development and Lifelong Learning at Western Kentucky University. Prior to joining WKU, Uranis held both teaching and administrative positions at Eastern Michigan University, joining that institution in 2003. Uranis had been the program manager for EMU-Online at EMU, where she was responsible for student services, recruitment, and retention for online programs and courses.
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2 Responses to NCES data on ‘non-traditional’ learners: DELO’s role in serving today’s learners

  1. Mike says:

    Thanks for sharing Julie, technology might help to uplift those students.

  2. Amie says:

    I love this pos I read your blog airly often and you’re always coming out with some
    great stuff. I share this on my Facebook and my followers loved it.
    Keep uup the good work.

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