Think of college and, chances are, you picture 18-year-olds strolling across a leafy campus on their way from dorm to class.
That is not reality for most college students today.
More than half of college students today attend part time, do not start right after high school, transfer at least once or experience some combination of all three, according to new research from the National Student Clearinghouse. These nontraditional students are much less likely to earn a bachelor's degree in six years, or an associate's degree in three, than their younger, full-time counterparts.
Some 77 percent of full-time students entering college in 2008 earned a degree in six years, compared with just 43 percent of students who attended a mix of part time and 21 percent of entirely part-time students, the study found.
"It still amazes me, the degree to which the recognition of the massive demographic shift in the American student body is an unknown fact for most Americans," said Robert Hansen, chief executive of the University Professional & Continuing Education Association. His organization estimates that just 15 percent of college students today are full-time, first-time students living on campus.
The rest, he said, are often juggling jobs, family and more. And trying to cobble together credits from different attempts at a degree, and contending with class schedules that don't accommodate their own work and family obligations, can be daunting.
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The National Student Clearinghouse report is just one of several recent and ongoing attempts to better understand rates of college completion. Currently, Department of Education data does not include students who transfer in, for example. By that measure, President Barack Obama would not count as having graduated from Columbia University, although Columbia itself disagrees.
Several college associations are coming together to create the Student Achievement Measure, which aims to include transfer students in graduation rates and present individual colleges' data.
In another initiative, a group of college associations teamed up with InsideTrack, a research and consulting firm, to look at the success rates of students returning to college after a break. According to their initial findings, released in October, just 33.7 percent of students returning to college between 2005 and 2008 managed to graduate, compared with 54.1 percent of first-time students.
"What we're seeing in these results is the impact of a system that isn't designed to support working adults, many of whom are also raising families or may have prior negative experiences with higher education," said Dave Jarrat, a vice president at InsideTrack, in a published statement.
For-profit colleges and universities seem to have a particularly hard time graduating students. Only 36 percent of their students graduated within six years, either at those colleges or elsewhere, according to the National Student Clearinghouse report. (Two-year public colleges fared slightly worse, but students often finish at those schools without receiving a degree because they transfer to a four-year school.)
Part of the problem is that for-profit colleges tend to be significantly more expensive than their public in–state counterparts, and students attending for-profit colleges often take on student loans, on which they often default if they don't stay in school.
"One of the biggest indicators for default is non-completion," said Lauren Asher, president of the Institute for College Access and Success. "If you are very low-income, even a small amount of debt can be difficult."
Some 19 percent of students at for-profit colleges defaulted on federal student loans within three years after entering repayment programs in 2011, according to the Department of Education, compared with 13 percent at public colleges and universities and 7 percent at private institutions. And while only 12 percent of students were enrolled in for-profit colleges, the Institute for College Access and Success found that they accounted for 44 percent of federal loan defaults.
At least those students are getting loans. Hansen pointed out that federal regulations require students to attend at least half time in order to be eligible for aid. That can be a tall order for a working parent returning to school, but the lack of financial aid can make continuing education even tougher.
There are a few encouraging signs. Hansen points to colleges that are creating new online offerings for nontraditional students, such as the University of Illinois, Springfield, which offers both undergraduate and graduate online degrees.
In addition, community colleges in Florida and several other states are being allowed to offer some four-year programs, creating a low-cost, part-time option for nontraditional students who want a bachelor's degree. St. Petersburg College in Florida, for example, has more than two dozen such programs.
But so far, the changes are only scattered, Hansen said. For the most part, "institutions are not designed to give students what they need to graduate in a timely manner."