Matriculated vs. Non-Matriculated Students

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Updated: November 8, 2023, Reading time: 26 minutes

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In the US, there are more than 20 million students enrolled in post-secondary institutions, of which 369,402 students are enrolled in non-degree-granting institutions. Undergraduate students pursuing degrees reached 16.6 million while 3.1 million are enrolled in graduate programs. These statistics show that there are two types of students in post-secondary institutions – the matriculated students and the non-matriculated students – and their differences will be discussed in detail here.

Let’s start with the biggest difference – matriculated students pursue academic degrees while non-matriculated students only enroll in one or a few classes without the intention of earning a degree. Then, we will take a look at the factors that will influence your decision to become either one of these types, among other crucial information.

But did you know that the contemporary word “matriculate” came from the Latin word “matricula” meaning to register? Its first known use was in 1557 and referred to the process or action of matriculating or enrolling at a college or university. In current usage, matriculation refers to the formal process of acceptance into a post-secondary educational institution as a candidate for an undergraduate or graduate degree.

The process itself may or may not be marked by a special ceremony but the students are considered formally enrolled in the academic programs, and it’s the most important aspect of matriculation. Adrian College, The Military College of South Carolina, and Tufts University have special ceremonies to welcome newly-matriculated students, sometimes known as Welcome Week, while many medical schools have their white coat ceremony.

Grad School Center is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Differences Between Matriculated and Non-Matriculated Students

Every student has a unique set of reasons for pursuing an academic degree or courses, and these reasons are influenced by their personal interests and professional goals. The first step then in deciding between being a matriculated and a non-matriculated student – is to look inside yourself and determine what you want to achieve by going to college!

Study and Career Goals

What are your goals in enrolling in college? If you want to take one or two classes for the following reasons, then your best choice is to be a non-matriculated student:

Other reasons for pursuing the non-matriculated student option include meeting licensing requirements, complying with course requirements for a degree at another institution, and getting a refresher before enrolling in a graduate degree program. Many early start students also choose to be non-matriculated students just to get a head start and for other reasons.

As a non-matriculated student, you can choose which courses you want to be enrolled in. You can adopt a multidisciplinary approach by taking classes in diverse fields of study, such as business management, engineering, and education. You may also enroll in related courses, say, in the humanities to enhance your art appreciation skills. With this approach, you’re not going to earn an academic degree but you’re going to learn new knowledge and skills!

On the other hand, you will likely take the matriculated student option if your reasons for going to college include:

Are you unsure about the best path for you now? Perhaps you’re see-sawing between pursuing a career in social work or criminal justice, thus, you want to check out their academic demands and career options first. You want to attend one course in introductory social work and another in criminal justice for this purpose – and you can, too!

The good news is that many universities allow a change from non-matriculated to matriculated status! But you must consult with an admissions officer or a faculty advisor about the university’s specific policies and practices before enrolling as a non-matriculated student.

Admission Requirements and Status of Enrollment

Most colleges and universities have their unique admissions policies and procedures with acceptance rates ranging from an inclusive 100% to a highly selective 5%. Academy of Art University, Averett University, and Broward College are examples of inclusive institutions while Harvard University, Stanford University, and Princeton University are elite schools.

Their respective track record, admissions-wise, also extends to their admission for matriculated and non-matriculated students. Applicants will likely have more difficulty in enrolling in Harvard’s non-degree programs because of its highly selective general admissions policy. Many universities, such as New York University, also ask for the applicants’ official transcripts from previous institutions attended before registration can be approved.

But most post-secondary institutions don’t require individuals interested in becoming a non-matriculated student to take an admission exam, placement exams, and prerequisite courses – unless, of course, the prerequisite courses are necessary for advanced courses. Most of the admission requirements mentioned below may not even apply to individuals planning on enrolling as non-matriculated students.

Even a 65-year old individual, for example, can cherry-pick from art classes, such as introductory drawing and art history courses, for this reason. Take note, however, that certain courses may be unavailable to non-matriculated students so, again, ask before you choose.

Furthermore, non-matriculated students are considered part-time students. Their registration is for credit courses only instead of for an entire program of study in a degree program, thus, the part-time status. This is an excellent option if you’re struggling with maintaining a healthy work-life-studies balance but you still want to learn a new skill or update your existing skill.

In contrast, matriculated students have complied with the admission requirements imposed by their respective colleges and universities. While the admission requirements vary, the most common include:

Matriculated students are also likely to take admissions and placement exams to determine their suitability for the degree program and its learning outcomes. These exams can be rigorous, too, meaning only applicants that meet the university’s academic standards are placed on the shortlist. The results of these exams are considered alongside the abovementioned admissions requirements, too.

And then there’s the interview requirement that most selective universities, including the Ivy League universities and the Public Ivies, either require or recommend. Brown University, Columbia University, and Harvard University require an interview while Princeton University and Yale University recommend it. Johns Hopkins University, Stanford University, and Vassar College have an optional interview policy.

The purpose of the interview – or series of interviews – can be either evaluative or informational. Either way, applicants must put their best foot forward since it may well make or break their status as matriculated students!

Matriculated students can be part-time or full-time students depending on the number of credits they are enrolled in. But emphasis must be made that cohort programs require their students to be on full-time registration. Students in cohort progress in the program as a group and follow a predetermined program of study every year, with the possible exception of their choice in electives.

In other words, matriculated students cannot cherry-pick their courses! Their program of study follows a sequential order wherein courses from their freshman year become the foundation for courses in their sophomore year, and so on and so forth until their senior year.

Non-matriculated students can stay in college for one year, maximum, according to policies in many colleges and universities. Matriculated students stay for a minimum of two years in associate degree programs, four years in bachelor’s degree programs, and three years or more years in master’s degree programs.

Actual time-to-completion varies among students depending on their enrollment status and other factors. Post-secondary institutions impose a time limit on when students must earn the degree, say, within seven years at Boston University.

Credit Hour Limit and Transfer of Credits

The number of credit hours for which matriculated and non-matriculated students can register is yet another difference between them. Matriculated students with a full-time course load can register for 12-18 credits per term depending on the university policy, the program requirements, and the student’s capacity. Indeed, theirs is a demanding schedule since 12-18 credits can mean between four and six courses, and it’s a juggling act even for students who aren’t working students.

Non-matriculated students being part-time students mean that they have fewer credit hours registered or fewer courses to take. The limit on credit hours registered every term for non-matriculated students varies so it’s important to ask first. But the usual credit hour limits range from nine to twelve credits during the regular term.

Furthermore, non-matriculated students must take note of a larger restriction on the maximum number of credits that can be accumulated during a specific period. At SUNY Brockport, for example, non-matriculated students can only take 24 credits, maximum. Once the credit limit has been reached, they must either sign a statement stating their intention to not pursue a degree or become matriculated students. But registration as a non-matriculated student doesn’t guarantee matriculation at a later date, a universal policy in the US higher education system.

But it’s also important to note that there’s a greater push for micro-credentials for lifelong learners. These micro-credentials are designed to “create a dynamic digital transcript” that meets the current needs of industries and their employers in terms of relevant skills. You may also inquire about possible lifelong options offered by universities if you’re not interested in getting an academic degree.

When it comes to transferring credits, the policies among colleges and universities vary, too. Generally speaking, credits from independent courses designed for non-matriculated students cannot be transferred to an academic degree program. But credits earned from courses designed for matriculated students can be transferred although the number of credits allowed and the transfer policies vary. At the University of Rochester, for example, up to 24 credits or six courses taken as a non-matriculated student can be transferred to a degree program sans additional tuition.

These practices don’t apply to matriculated students. Thanks to reciprocity agreements between post-secondary institutions, matriculated students can transfer their credits earned between universities. Policies regarding the transfer of credits vary but regionally accredited institutions have generous policies that allow most, if not all, earned credits to be transferred between schools.

Do non-matriculated students get graded? Well, it depends on whether they are registered on a credit/no credit basis, the type of course, and their personal reasons. Students may be graded if the course is a prerequisite to an upper-level course or if proof of completion is needed. There are also schools where non-matriculated students get a pass/fail assessment instead of a letter or number grade.

Colleges and universities may also limit the types of courses and programs where non-matriculated students are welcome. City College of New York, for example, doesn’t accept non-matriculated students in its School of Architecture as well as in its Creative Writing, MFA Film, and Branding + Integrated Communication programs.

Access to University Services

Non-matriculated students receive the same quality of instruction as their matriculated counterparts. This isn’t surprising considering that colleges and universities use academic excellence for all students as among their major come-ons for prospective students. Quality of instruction is also crucial for encouraging non-matriculated students to become matriculated learners.

But there are a few things that non-matriculated students are entitled to access in their schools, and it’s a major factor when considering their academic status. While access to library services is a universal right among students, access to many student support services may not be! Housing privileges, academic advising, access to health insurance services, and health and wellness facilities are among the off-limits services for non-matriculated students.

Requirements for integrative seminars, capstone projects, internships and practicum, and dissertations aren’t applicable to non-matriculated students. This is good news if you think about it since these matriculation requirements demand significant investment in time, energy, and money!

In contrast, matriculated students have all-out access to their respective school’s services, from student support services to financial aid services. These services are designed to provide them with vital assistance for their academic success, even going beyond into career-related services. Housing privileges, library services, and access to health and wellness services are common.

Of course, matriculated students must comply with academic degree requirements, and it’s one of the challenges of being so. Aside from admission requirements, they must undergo internships, capstone projects, and/or dissertation requirements to earn their respective degree.

Financial Aid

The annual cost of tuition in two-year and four-year ranges from $3,377 to $35,807 depending on the type of institution (i.e., public or private) and residency status (i.e., in-state or out-of-state). These figures don’t even include the books, room and board, and incidental expenses that make up the total cost of attendance! Unless you’re a trust fund kid and the like, the cost of getting a college education can be a cause for concern.

Non-matriculated students may be more concerned since the general rule is for them to pay per credit, which may or may not be higher than the tuition imposed on matriculated students. Paying for credit also means missing out on the possible tuition discounts that matriculated students are eligible for.

And then there’s the matter of financial aid eligibility! Matriculated students have full access to a wide range of financial aid options including federal aid, internal and external scholarships, grants, and work-study schemes. Of course, they must meet eligibility requirements, which can be need-based and/or merit-based depending on the program.

Non-matriculated students aren’t so blessed in this regard. The general rule is that non-matriculated students aren’t eligible for financial aid but there are a few exceptions, of which the most common among post-secondary institutions are:

If these conditions are met, you can be eligible for the Stafford/Ford Direct Student Loan programs for 12 consecutive months. The federal aid has other terms and conditions, too, including maximum borrowing amount per year depending on your tuition cost, financial need, and dependency status. Non-matriculated students fill out FAFSA like their matriculated counterparts as the first step in applying for federal aid and other financial aid options.

The Federal Direct Loan amounts are at the undergraduate-level loan amounts for both undergraduate and graduate non-matriculated students. If you already have prior federal loans with current balances, the amount you can borrow under the Stafford/Ford Direct Student Loan programs will be affected by the borrowing limits on undergraduate loans.

Why are non-matriculated students prevented from applying for most of the financial aid options? The rationale is that taxpayer money will get a higher return on investment from matriculated students who plan on earning their degree and contributing more to society. While there’s plenty of room for discussion, the current system is what it is.

Comparison Table/Summary

These differences can be summarized in a simpler form, as follows.

 Matriculated StudentsNon-matriculated Students
Student and Career GoalsFor students who want to earn an academic degree for creating or changing careers or for career advancementFor students who don’t want to earn an academic degree but for personal fulfillment and/or professional requirement. For students who want to try out a field of study before committing to a degree program
Admission RequirementsApplicants must comply with the full list of admission requirements, from official transcripts to admission and placement examsApplicants enjoy fewer admission requirements and, thus, may have higher chances of admission
Enrollment StatusUsually full-time but part-time status is also allowed (with the exception of cohort programs)Usually part-time status
Credit Hour LimitsFull course load between 12 and 18 creditsA limited number of credits allowed per term and cumulative number of credits
Transfer of CreditsAllowed between schools, particularly with reciprocity agreements and/or regional accreditationAllowed for regular courses with exceptions; not allowed for independent courses designed specifically for non-matriculated students
Access to University ServicesTypically allowed access to all university services including admission services, student support services, and housing privilegesLimited access only
Financial AidEligible to most, if not all, forms of financial aid based on financial aid and/or meritLimited access to financial aid, both federal and institutional aid

The Matriculation Process Explained

Colleges and universities have their own unique matriculation process and procedures that applicants must follow to gain admission into their programs. Regardless of their differences, matriculation programs are designed to provide current and prospective students with appropriate support to increase their academic success. These programs also provide proper and prompt access to the wide range of student support services offered by the institutions.

These student support services start with enrollment advising where current and prospective students discuss their academic options with admission and/or enrollment advisors. These options include the courses that can be taken for the term and their academic requirements including minimum grades, research papers, and internships. Incoming students may also discuss their housing options, meal plans, and financial aid options with concerned staff members.

Current and prospective students should also discuss admission and placement exams, transfer of credits, and other types of intervention. These student support services are in place to ensure that, indeed, students start on the right foot even before stepping foot in the classroom for their first formal class. The more you know what you’re getting into, even when it’s your second year in your chosen university, the more likely you’ll be prepared for the new challenges ahead.

In today’s Digital Age, many of these student support services in line with matriculation are also available online through podcasts, videos, and chat messaging. Face-to-face services are a mainstay because these allow incoming students to enjoy the full experience of on-campus visits, among other benefits.

Colleges and universities, such as Saddleback College and Midwestern University, have a formal matriculation process complete with specific steps in sequential order. The process applies to certificate students as well as undergraduate and graduate students, but there may be exceptions granted by the university and/or by law including non-matriculated students. 

The basic phases in a typical matriculation process are:

Yes, even non-matriculated students can enjoy the matriculation process albeit with a few changes. Everybody’s welcome to Welcome Week, too!

Matriculation Rights and Responsibilities of Students

Both non-matriculated and matriculated students have their rights and responsibilities although the scope will differ depending on their status, as implied above. Their general rights can be summed up in the following section. (Note that colleges and universities usually follow the matriculation regulations of their state)

When it comes to responsibilities, students have their fair share, too, which complement the responsibilities and services that their universities pledge to deliver. The common student responsibilities upon matriculation are:

These rights and responsibilities of students are intended to maintain the academic contract between them and the post-secondary institution they’re enrolled in. When students fail to enforce their rights or perform on their responsibilities, the contract may be terminated by the university – and it’s an action that has consequences beyond one’s academic career, too! The same is true when post-secondary institutions fail their end of the contract.

Maintaining Matriculation

Matriculated students must maintain their matriculated status every academic year until their completion of the requirements for graduation. Maintaining matriculation is of crucial importance in your academic success for the following reasons:

Note, nonetheless, that a university may reserve the right to restrict access to certain services for students maintaining matriculation. This is because they aren’t considered full-time students and, thus, their access to student housing, health insurance, and financial aid may be affected.

Indeed, maintaining matriculation isn’t just about calling yourself by the school’s nickname for its athletic team! You will want to maintain matriculation because not only will it decrease the risk of going back to square one, but it means continued access to the university’s services even when you’re not a full-time student.

According to universal practice among post-secondary institutions, maintaining matriculation is achieved by enrolling in courses during the regular terms. This means during the fall and spring terms, particularly, since the summer term isn’t included in the consideration.

But there’s a larger restriction, too, in maintaining matriculation! Each institution has its own limit for the number of regular terms that a student can maintain matriculation, such as a maximum of two semesters only. Afterward, said student must resume full matriculation or comply with the graduation requirements.

Every university also sets the criteria for students eligible to maintain matriculation. Generally speaking, students who belong to one of these categories are well-advised to maintain matriculation according to the rules:

Students typically have to express their intention of maintaining matriculation and contact the Office of the Registrar, or the office designated for the purpose, with their advisor’s approval. Non-refundable fees are likely to be imposed since the student is assumed to continue their use of the university’s services and facilities. There may be a specific course, sometimes known as a Maintain Matriculation course, that students must enroll in.

Changing from Non-matriculated to Matriculated Student

Non-matriculated students can apply for matriculation status based on their respective universities’ rules and regulations pertaining thereto. The Office of the Registrar is usually the office responsible for providing proper and prompt assistance for non-matriculated students in this regard. Interested non-matriculated students must then coordinate with the appropriate office since there are criteria to be met and procedures to be followed.

Like matriculated students, non-matriculated students who want to make the change must declare a major and participate in the formulation of their personalized education plan. Universities may also allow them to declare the undeclared status if they have yet to decide on a specific field of study.

The criteria may include a minimum number of college-level credits taken at the university where a non-matriculated student wishes to make the change. Aside from the credits requirement, there will likely be a minimum GPA, too, for the courses taken as a non-matriculated student.

Courses taken by non-matriculated students will be considered as part of the for-credit requirements of whatever academic program they are applying for as matriculated students. Again, there will be terms and conditions for the transfer of credits, such as the prerequisites being met.

Failure to Comply with Matriculation

Matriculated students may fail to complete matriculation for many reasons with a few of them being acts of omission. Indeed, it’s important for students to be well aware of the mandatory requirements that maintain their matriculation status! The common reasons for failing to complete matriculation include the failure to:

Failure to complete matriculation can result in the termination of studies, a consequence with a far-reaching impact on the affected student’s life. There are formal steps, however, in the termination of studies so affected students still have effective recourse to reverse the failure.

In conclusion, the difference between matriculated and non-matriculated students can be significant. These include their rights and responsibilities as students, their reasons for going to college, and their expected educational outcomes. But underneath their differences lie the fact that they are students pursuing knowledge and skills that will improve their lives!

With this in mind, it’s important for individuals interested in post-secondary education to first look within themselves so that they can look outward with enthusiasm! College education, after all, can make your life so much better than it is today, not just in the financial sense but in the mental and emotional aspects.

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