Equity & Diversity Opinion

A Call to Think About ‘Nontraditional’ College Students

By Matthew Chingos — August 21, 2014 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Policymakers who care about the level of educational achievement and attainment in the United States should pay careful attention to the nation’s rapidly changing demographics.

Matthew Chingos

The Obama administration has been pushing policies aimed at meeting the president’s goal that the United States lead the world in educational attainment by 2020. Some progress has been made, with the bachelor’s degree attainment rate among 25- to 29-year-olds edging up to 34 percent in 2013 from 28 percent in 2006, after a decade of stagnation.

But this progress may be threatened by rapidly changing demographics. The fact that non-Hispanic whites no longer account for a majority of U.S. students is largely explained by the increase in the percentage of Hispanic students, from 14 percent in 1996 to about 25 percent today. That percentage will likely continue to increase, as the Hispanic population in the United States is projected to grow from 17 percent in 2012 to 31 percent in 2060.

This fact is illustrated by U.S. Census data on educational attainment, with 16 percent of Hispanics ages 25 to 55 holding a bachelor’s degree or higher in 2013 as compared with 38 percent of non-Hispanics. As the Hispanic share of the population continues to grow, the overall attainment rate will fall if attainment stays constant for each group. As my coauthors and I wrote in our 2009 book, Crossing the Finish Line, “It will not do to concentrate efforts on improving outcomes of college-bound upper-class white students ... if for no other reason than that there are not going to be enough of them.”

Educational success correlates not just with ethnicity, but also with country of birth. U.S.-born Hispanics have a bachelor’s degree attainment rate nearly double that of foreign-born Hispanics (21 percent vs. 12 percent), whereas immigrant non-Hispanics have the highest rate of all—51 percent, as compared to 36 percent among U.S.-born non-Hispanics. Making it easier for well-educated individuals to come to the United States is one strategy to raise the human capital of our population, although significant reform to immigration policy seems likely to remain out of reach politically for the foreseeable future.

Making serious progress on the attainment issue will require renewed focus on the needs of all students, especially non-traditional college students. A recent Brookings Institution report highlights some ways to help these students who do not look like “typical” college students, but who constitute a majority of the college-going population. These recommendations include changing the Pell grant program to facilitate year-round enrollment and enhancing federal data-collection efforts to better represent the outcomes of nontraditional students and provide more useful data, such as information on employment outcomes, to help students make better-informed college-going decisions.

These challenges are daunting, but optimism is warranted given the fact that increases in attainment have occurred in recent years alongside demographic shifts. This occurred because improvements were shared across demographic groups, with bachelor’s degree attainment increasing over the 2003-2013 period from 12 percent to 16 percent among Hispanics and from 33 percent to 38 percent among non-Hispanics. The country will only continue to progress as a whole if these improvements continue to be shared by all Americans.

Notes: The bachelor’s degree attainment rates reported in this paper without hyperlinked citations are based on the author’s calculations from the Current Population Survey.

Matthew M. Chingos is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, in Washington, and the research director of its Brown Center on Education Policy. He studies a wide range of education-related topics at both the K-12 and postsecondary levels and has written extensively on class-size reduction, teacher quality, and college completion.

Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in OpEducation are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Evaluating Equity to Drive District-Wide Action this School Year
Educational leaders are charged with ensuring all students receive equitable access to a high-quality education. Yet equity is more than an action. It is a lens through which we continuously review instructional practices and student
Content provided by BetterLesson

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Equity & Diversity Reported Essay Do Students Have What They Need? One Survey Looks to Answer That Question
Even before the pandemic started, one state started thinking about how to understand student needs better. That plan accelerated with the virus.
4 min read
Conceptual Illustration
Pep Montserrat for Education Week
Equity & Diversity Reported Essay What the Indian Caste System Taught Me About Racism in American Schools
Born and raised in India, reporter Eesha Pendharkar isn’t convinced that America’s anti-racist efforts are enough to make students of color feel like they belong.
7 min read
Conceptual Illustration
Pep Montserrat for Education Week
Equity & Diversity Reported Essay Our Student Homeless Numbers Are Staggering. Schools Can Be a Bridge to a Solution
The pandemic has only made the student homelessness situation more volatile. Schools don’t have to go it alone.
5 min read
Conceptual illustration
Pep Montserrat for Education Week
Equity & Diversity How Have the Debates Over Critical Race Theory Affected You? Share Your Story
We want to hear how new constraints on teaching about racism have affected your schools.
1 min read
Mary Hassdyk for Education Week