Digest No. 08 - January 2021

Implications of Different Student Approaches to College Completion

Monaghan, D. B. 2020. “College-Going Trajectories across Early Adulthood: An Inquiry Using Sequential Analysis.” The Journal of Higher Education 91 (3): 402–432.


How does the college-going experience differ among students in early and middle adulthood? Using a nationally-representative data set, the author explores the pathways students take toward degree attainment. To do so, the author developed a typology of adult students based on a cluster analysis of such variables as employment, marital status, and parental transitions.

The author analyzed the responses of 1,951 adult students who participated in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, 1979 cohort. This sample represents students who were 18 to 39 years old between 1978 and 2004. From this analysis, the author identifies four different pathways toward degree completion: rapid completers, marginal students, lifelong students, and delayed completers.


Most rapid completers, who represented 38 percent of college-goers in this sample, completed college by their mid-20s. They were the most likely group to make “the heaviest use of part-time employment” while taking classes and to transition to full-time employment after their early 20s (p. 424). They also delayed marriage and starting a family far longer than those in other groups. For example, by age 25, fewer than 40 percent of these students were married and only 15 percent had children. The author summarizes that “the students whose attendance was completed quickly and successfully were those able to focus exclusively on college-going in their early adulthood” (p. 424).

Marginal college-goers comprised the largest group of the sample at 43 percent. These are students who attended “for only a few semesters at a time and few ever earned a bachelor’s degree” (p. 423). By age 25, 58 percent of these students were married and 50 percent had children.

The remaining 19 percent of the sample was made up of lifelong students and delayed completers. Lifelong students enrolled at high rates in their 20s and 30s but rarely completed their degrees. These students were “unique in experiencing a downturn in employment between ages 18–24” (p. 424). By age 25, 53 percent of these students were married and 44 percent had children.

Delayed completers also enrolled at higher rates in their 20s and 30s but completed their degrees by age 39. These students had higher rates of full-time and overall employment than others, particularly beyond the age of 30. By age 25, 53 percent of these students were married and 39 percent had children.

The author also compared each group to non-college-going adults. Overall, the author concluded that the adult characteristics (namely, work, marriage, and children) of the marginal, life-long learner and delayed completer more closely resembled non-college going adults than did the rapid completers.


Most institutional policies and practices favor rapid completers. The same cannot be said for students who follow less traditional pathways toward degree completion. Especially during these times of uncertain enrollment, colleges might rethink how they can serve nontraditional students and subsequently market themselves as learning communities for all types of learners, including those who work full-time and have children.

Perhaps degree completion should not be the ultimate goal of all course offerings. This may be especially true of courses offered online. Given that many students take courses at several different institutions, institutions should examine the ease or difficulty of accepting credits from other institutions. In addition, institutions may want to create certification sequences as part of their curricula. Rather than focusing primarily on degree completion, colleges might consider offering short-term, year-long certifications in specialty areas that might attract interested students who are unable to invest in a traditional four-year experience.

About the Authors

David B. Monaghan is an assistant professor of sociology at the Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania.

Literature Readers May Wish to Consult

Bourdieu, P., and J. C. Passeron. 1977. Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture. London: Sage Publications.

Goldrick-Rab, S. 2016. Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream. Chicago: Uni-versity of Chicago Press.