A Dream Deferred: Post-Traditional College Trajectories and the Evolving Logic of College Plans

George Spencer, Janine de Novais, Emily Carolyn Chen-Bendle, Elizabeth Ndika

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Despite high college expectations and enrollments among young people, their trajectories through higher education have become increasingly complex. Even after initially starting as “traditional” students, many college graduates are only able to complete a bachelor’s degree after a series of stops and starts across multiple institutions. While there is a growing body of research regarding nontraditional students, we know very little about how these individuals make sense of their trajectories. This qualitative study draws on interviews with 40 college graduates who attained a bachelor’s degree following an extended and interrupted path. We consider how these individuals, who we define as post-traditional graduates, come to understand the value of college, distinguishing between the moral value, referred to as the expressive logic, and more practical and economic explanations, referred to as the instrumental logic. Our study found that an instrumental logic characterized the beginning of their college journeys, but what sustained our participants over time was an expressive logic: an evolved understanding of college as a process conferring personal development and moral worth.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)350-372
Number of pages23
JournalJournal of Higher Education
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2024


  • Post-traditional students
  • aspirations
  • expectations
  • nontraditional
  • persistence

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education


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