Portrait of the Occupational Student

New data released on the college population that wants career training below the bachelor's level.
March 29, 2007

Educators spend a lot of time talking about diverse, non-traditional students, but much of the focus involves those in traditional higher education. A report issued Wednesday by the U.S. Education Department attempts to provide more information about the subset of college students -- one that is more diverse and disadvantaged than students on average -- that is seeking occupational training.

Occupational students are defined as those seeking either an associate degree or certificate (but not a bachelor's degree) in an occupational (as opposed to academic) program. The department's analysis is based on college students who started their programs in 1995-96 and the occupational subbaccalaureate group is larger than any other:

Distribution of New College Students by Goal, 1995-6

Goal Percent
Occupational subbaccalaureate 36%
Career baccalaureate 19%
Undeclared baccalaureate 13%
Undeclared subbaccalaureate 12%
Academic baccalaureate 10%
Academic subbaccaulareate 9%

Not only were there more academic subbacalaureate students, they were more diverse. The group was predominantly female (57 percent), and had higher rates of underrepresented minority groups than other sectors do: 16 of the students are black and 9 percent are Hispanic. The average age of these students when they started their programs was 24.

Some of the characteristics of these students appear to affect their identities as students. For example, 56 percent delayed their enrollment one or more years after finishing high school, and 45 percent worked while enrolled. Occupational students are more likely to think of themselves as "enrolled employees" than as "working students," the Education Department found.

Generally, students seeking certificates or associate degrees are less likely than are those seeking a four-year degree to complete their programs -- whether the credential they are seeking is vocational or academic. And the new study offers additional confirmation.

As of 2001, 48 percent of those occupational students who entered in 1995-6 had earned a credential. An additional 12 percent remained enrolled in their programs.

The top reasons cited by those who left their programs were: job or financial demands, family demands and moving to another city or state. In some cases, people citing these reasons did not abandon their quest for a credential but enrolled in less demanding programs.


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