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Drifting apart or converging? Grades among non-traditional and traditional students over the course of their studies: a case study from Germany


Since 2009, German universities were opened by law to freshmen who do not possess the traditional graduation certificate required for entry into University, but who are rather vocationally qualified. In this article, we track the grades of these so-called non-traditional students and compare them to those of traditional students using a longitudinal design. Based on assumptions about differences in competencies, family background and the cultural closeness of academia, we derive hypotheses on differences concerning the progression of students’ grades. These hypotheses have been tested using examination data from an undergraduate degree program at one German university. Analyzing a sample of 723 students, we show that over the course of their studies, non-traditional students perform worse than their fellow students who have general university entrance qualifications. Moreover, there is no trend toward convergence between the students’ performances. Additionally, repeated measures ANOVAs reveal the influence of socio-demographic characteristics and study practice on progression of students’ grades.

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Fig. 1

Source: PETS 2015, own calculations, average grades are displayed, based on semester-wise varying number of cases (see Table 2 for details)

Fig. 2

Source: PETS 2015, own calculations, moving average grades are displayed, based on semester-wise varying number of cases (see Table 3 for details)


  1. Prior to 2009, universities were not completely closed to non-traditional students. First steps in this direction were already taken during the Weimar Republic. Later on, Lower Saxony took a leading role in the 1970s by establishing a liberal access to higher education for non-traditional students (Schwabe-Ruck 2015; Wolter 2013).

  2. The definition of non-traditional students, respectively, of traditional students, focuses on their formal education only (“Entrance pathways to universities in Germany” section). It solely depends on whether they hold general university entrance qualifications (Abitur) or not. All traditional students hold this qualification. Non-traditional students do not possess this secondary school qualification but passed an entrance examination before being admitted to university. According to our definition, this group can be defined distinctly, without considering pathways to higher education, the mode of study, and the composition of the student body (Schuetze and Slowey 2002). Although these criteria have been frequently used in international research, they are inferior to our approach as we only rely on one clear criterion—secondary school qualifications.

  3. Some Länder allow students with a university of applied sciences entrance qualification for undergraduate studies at universities as well.

  4. The timing of enrollment is strongly affected by the availability of cultural, social, and economic capital (Brändle 2016a).

  5. In most of the Länder, prospective students must have some years of work experience in addition to their vocational education.

  6. Similar to this, Brändle (2014) emphasizes that non-traditional students in Germany were motivated for further acquisition of education to a higher degree than traditional students.

  7. This program includes courses in business economics, political economy, law, and sociology. All students gain insight into the four disciplines to the same extent during their freshman year and then freely choose their specialization in the second study year (Universität Hamburg 2009a). It remains an open question whether the performance gap between NTS and TS who are studying in the same program differs in the four disciplines according to their different education, their competencies, or their (work) experiences.

  8. These admission requirements are not recorded in the University’s examinations’ data. This is why the group of non-traditional students also contains persons with entrance qualification for universities of applied sciences. Thus, we are not able to exclude these subgroups from the analysis. This is problematic because we cannot expect that all persons passing the entrance examination possess equivalent competencies, respectively, differ in the same way from those students holding a general university entrance qualification.

  9. Before having access to the anonymized data, analysis procedure has been described in detail to the university’s data protection officer and was checked for permissibility.

  10. Supposedly, including non-completion students would yield similar results—if both groups of students have equal rates of non-completion. If non-completion students constantly perform poorer than graduates, their exclusion implies that grade improvements tend to be overestimated.

  11. Each grade between 1.0 and 4.0 can be raised or lowered by 0.3, where 0.7 and 4.3 are excluded. Students who do not meet the requirements receive a 5.0 (Universität Hamburg 2009b).

  12. The students solely have to pass their exams. Hence, the data do not provide any grades for exams of the first year of study.

  13. At present, we have such a data set available only for students who started studying from winter semester 2012/2013 onwards, but not for graduates. Analyses show that non-traditional students pass significantly less examinations during their freshman year, even after controlling for educational climbing, vocational education, timing of enrollment, non-university strains, and motivation (Brändle and Lengfeld 2015).

  14. Although we cannot make a clear statement regarding dropout—due to our data—there are hints for different non-completion rates between the two groups. 32 % of the students who started studying between winter semester 2008/2009 and summer semester 2010 were non-traditional students. Among the graduates until winter semester 2014/2015, there were 24 % non-traditional students. Presumably, this is not only a matter of different study practice, but also indicates different dropout rates.

  15. The age of students in their first semester of studying at German universities was 22.7 years in the winter semester 2013/2014 (Statistisches Bundesamt 2014).

  16. Since the students can go on a hiatus during studies, they do not necessarily take examinations in every semester. As a result, the number of cases regarding the progression of the GPA per semester varies (Table 2).

  17. There is a correlation of 0.2 between duration until graduation and the final grade. This means the longer the students study, the worse they perform.

  18. At first glance, this would contradict the assumption that students from non-academic milieu would perform worse at university (see “Competence-related and habitual differences: theoretical considerations” section). Having said that, it is possible that an institution which is experienced in teaching non-traditional students and is sensible for their needs—like the department being focused in this article—might be able to support all students equally.


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We would like to thank the project’s advisory board members Markus Arnold, Alexander Bassen, and Christine Zöllner, the Head of the Faculty of Business, Economics and Social Sciences at the University of Hamburg, Gabriele Löschper, the Managing Director of the “Universitätskolleg” Ulrike Helbig and her team, the staff of the university’s data processing center, and the entire team of the PETS project for their excellent support of our research.


This article presents findings of the research project “Passages from Employment to Studies—PETS” which was located at the University of Hamburg, Germany. PETS was sponsored by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research under Grant No. 01PL12033. The authors alone are responsible for the content of this publication.

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Correspondence to Holger Lengfeld.

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Brändle, T., Lengfeld, H. Drifting apart or converging? Grades among non-traditional and traditional students over the course of their studies: a case study from Germany. High Educ 73, 227–244 (2017).

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  • Non-traditional students
  • Opening of higher education
  • Academic performance
  • Grade progression
  • Grade point average (GPA)
  • Germany