Study: Nontraditional students have lower well-being, engagement

However, they are roughly equal on yearly income

Older, nontraditional graduates lag behind traditional graduates in many measures of well-being, according to a new Gallup survey, but do roughly as well in the labor market.

Gallup surveyed approximately 4,000 nontraditional college graduates (those who graduated at age 25 or older) and 7,500 traditional graduates who earned their degree between 1990 and 2014. Respondents were asked about their current personal income as well as their well-being.

Lower well-being in all areas

Well-being was measured in five areas: purpose, social, financial, community, and physical. The percentage of nontraditional graduates who reported themselves as "thriving" lagged slightly behind traditional graduates in every area.

Business major blues: Lack of purpose and guidance

Nontraditional graduates were:

  • 3 percentage points less likely to have a strong sense of purpose (43% overall);
  • 4 percentage points less likely to be thriving socially (42% overall);
  • 3 percentage points less likely to be thriving financially (31% overall);
  • 4 percentage points less likely to be connected to their community (37% overall); and
  • 4 percentage points less likely to be thriving physically (27% overall).

Gallup hypothesizes that the gaps can be partially explained by the different backgrounds of traditional and nontraditional students. For example, nontraditional students are a bit more likely to take on student debt—which previous Gallup research has connected to lower well-being. Gallup also points out that nontraditional graduates are more likely to be first-generation college students, many of whom come from low-income families, another predictor of lower well-being.

Nontraditional graduates also felt less connected to the school they attended. Only 14% of nontraditional graduates were "emotionally attached," compared with 20% of traditional graduates. Gallup research has found that graduates with a strong emotional attachment to their alma mater are twice as likely both to fare well in measures of well-being and to be engaged at work.

Younger students see better ROI

However, nontraditional graduates seem to earn about as much money as their traditional peers. Both groups reported roughly equal levels of personal income.  However, because traditional graduates enjoy that income at a younger age, they will often have higher levels of lifetime earnings. This indicates that traditional students get a better return on their investment, Gallup points out.

Survey: Elite status does not guarantee student engagement

Overall, Gallup concludes the survey results suggest that "with the U.S. Department of Education estimating that 40% of today's college-attending population is older than age 25, universities must find ways to connect with this different type of student" (Dugan, Gallup, 12/5; Dugan, Gallup, 12/4).


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