Trends in the Number of Non-Traditional
Students Attending NVCC
1983 Through 1993

At most community colleges a large portion of the student body is made up of non-traditional, or older students. Over half the student population at Northern Virginia Community College (NVCC) is aged 25 years or more. In essence, the college serves two distinct population groups: those students that enroll in college credit courses soon after graduating from high school (traditional students) and those who enroll several years or even decades after graduating from high school (non-traditional students).

The most recent Fact Book, published by the Office of Institutional Research (OIR) points out that over the past five years the median age of NVCC students has increased. What is not illustrated by the OIR publication is that prior to fall 1988 there was a large decrease in the percentage of students aged 25 or more. This report focuses on the trends of these non-traditional students at NVCC.

The mid-1980's saw an increase in the number of students 25 and older attending the college (see Fig. 1). Between 1984 and 1987 this older student population increased by almost 10 percent. Even with the college offering fewer course sections between 1985 and 1986, the number of students still rose. In fall 1988, following semester conversion, the college as a whole experienced a 5.7 percent headcount decline. The entire decrease was due to the drop in the non-traditional student population. Even though 6 percent more course sections were offered in fall 1988 over the previous fall, fewer students opted to take advantage of the additional offerings. Between fall 1987 and fall 1988, the number of students aged 25 years and older decreased by 11 percent while the number of students younger than 25 actually increased by 1.2 percent (see Table 1). Various reasons can be given for this apparent shift in headcount trends.

Table 1.
Students Age 25 and Over
  Fall       (N)        (%)     % Change 
198418,31956.3- 5.3
198519,18857.9+ 4.7
198619,75157.6+ 2.9
198720,08156.6+ 1.7
198918,82353.1+ 5.3
199019,09853.3+ 1.5
199221,93955.9+ 4.3
199321,89656.8- 0.2

Several factors, all stemming from the semester conversion, contributed to the 25 and older headcount decline in fall 1988. Tuition went from $16.95 per credit to $25.95 per credit, which appeared to be a 53 percent increase. In real "dollars per school year" the increase was only 2 percent; a student taking one, three-credit course in each quarter of the 1987-88 school year (fall, winter and spring), would have spent $152.55. A student taking one course in each semester of the 1988-89 school year (fall and spring) would have spent $155.70. Many non-traditional students, taking only one course a year, may not have realized they were paying more but also getting more education per credit. Besides the increase in tuition, the length of classes increased from 10 weeks to 16 weeks. This required students to commit more time to their education. While this would have little effect on a student planning to take a full load for an entire school year, it may have been harder for a non-traditional student, taking one course every fall, to make a four month commitment instead of a three month commitment.

Another factor that could have contributed to the student decline was a change in the fall class registration schedule. The last day to register for classes was five weeks earlier in the semester system than in the quarter system. Any student showing up in mid-September, the usual registration period, would have discovered the registration process had ended. They would have to wait until the spring semester of the following year to take any 16-week classes.

Many students did not need to register for classes after semester conversion because they had already earned their degrees or met their educational goals prior to fall 1988. When the college officially announced its intentions to convert to the semester system 18 months in advance, students were encouraged to complete course requirements and finish any sequence courses they were taking. Many of the older students that were close to graduating began taking more classes in hopes of finishing before the conversion. The push to complete courses allowed NVCC, for the first time, to have a graduating class of more than 2,000 students. In the spring of 1988 the college graduated 2,037 students. Not until three years following the semester conversion did the college once again experience such a large graduating class. The combination of these factors produced the 11 percent drop in the 25 and older headcounts between fall 1987 and fall 1989.

In the years following semester conversion, the number of non-traditional students began to increase. By the fall of 1991 the number of older students enrolling at the college surpassed the fall 1986 figure, reaching 21,036. One factor in this increase was the economic recession of the early 1990's. During this period more non-traditional students began taking courses at NVCC in hopes of getting better paying jobs or to keep their existing jobs. Trends show that NVCC's enrollment is inversely related to the performance of the economy. As the economy gets worse enrollments increase; as the economy gets better enrollments decrease.

The college can expect to see various fluctuations in the non-traditional student headcount. As the economy grows stronger, the numbers may decline slightly. When the college builds more facilities the numbers may increase. It is unlikely that any of these changes will ever have the effect that semester conversion had between the fall of 1987 and the fall of 1988.

January 1995
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