A Looming Challenge in Higher Education: Our Changing Student

Higher education leaders and policy makers must adjust to serve the students of the (very near) future, or risk failing in the responsibility to produce an educated citizenry and workforce capable of success.
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What comes to mind when you hear "college student"? If you're like most Americans, you probably picture a young, more-than-likely white, high school graduate somewhere between 18 and 21 years old, attending a four-year institution full time, and living in a dorm somewhere on campus.

Popular culture and the media have helped cement that picture in our collective minds, yet it has never been less accurate -- and is rapidly getting further and further from reality. The changing face of today's typical college student has profound implications for the future of higher education in our country.

First, Some Data

A National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) report released last spring projects that college enrollment will slow dramatically over the next decade, with most growth in traditionally underserved, minority populations. It projects a 25 percent increase in African-American students and a whopping 42 percent increase in Hispanic students by 2021 -- while only a 4 percent increase in white students.

This means college students will increasingly come from traditionally underserved and lower income communities and families -- minority children are about three times more likely to live in poverty than white children. And these students are significantly more likely to be first-generation college students, who in turn are significantly more likely to drop out than those whose parents have college degrees.

In addition, more college students are "non-traditional;" some combination of part-time attendees, older and working. In fact, only about a third of college students are 18 to 21-year-old, full-time attendees, and about 40 percent of all college students are older than 25.

The trend will only grow: The rise in enrollment of students 25 and older is projected to be nearly double that of younger students through 2020. And similar to minority students, non-traditional students are more than twice as likely to be low-income as "traditional" students, with all of the accompanying challenges to degree attainment that low income confers.

Finally, one more data point: A recent study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and Workforce estimates that by 2020, 65 percent of jobs will require workers with at least some college education. In the U.S. alone, there will be a shortage of five million workers with post-secondary degrees

So, just as our economy demands a higher education level in its work force, two dramatic student demographic trends are emerging that present significant challenges to the future of higher education attainment in the U.S.

We Will See More Students From Underserved Communities ...

As more students come from populations that typically fall behind the curve in education and economic measures, we will be increasingly challenged to ensure our young people are prepared for college when the time comes and are successful while there. A 2011 Chronicle of Higher Education report noted the college graduation rate for Latinos is less than half the national average. And the nationwide college graduation rate for black students stands at 42 percent compared to 62 percent for white students.

Georgia Regents University, like many institutions of higher education, is focusing much attention and significant resources on the retention, progression, and graduation of our students; a constellation of metrics that together spell student success.

That is critically important, but as a society we must start much earlier and implement measures in our K-12 education system to mitigate the risk factors facing our minority youth, including generally lower family incomes, disproportionately higher high school drop out rates, language barriers, and more. Measures like increased access to quality early childhood education, early and regular intervention and mentoring within the K-12 system, more effective counseling for middle and high school students, and easier access to financial aid.

And More Non-Traditional Students ...

A report from the National Commission on Adult Literacy estimates there are as many as 80 to 90 million Americans with no postsecondary credentials who could benefit from some kind of higher education. A "glass half empty" perspective says that's a shocking waste of human capital; "glass half full" sees an extraordinary opportunity to augment our workforce with mature, competent workers trained in the most current knowledge and skills.

But it will take dramatic transformation of post-secondary education delivery models to take advantage of that opportunity.

Older students are typically employed while attending college and are often juggling the responsibilities of parenthood; thus, they require maximum flexibility in their higher education experience. We must provide innovative solutions to higher education barriers for these students.

Things like robust online and distance learning options, awarding credit for prior work experience -- particularly apt for former military personnel -- and access to college for GED holders. Also, providing more options for progressive credentialing of knowledge at the sub-degree level and competency based training, perhaps with blended academic and experiential training, where success is measured by acquisition of specific skills and abilities.

But, To Succeed We Must Make It Affordable

Cost is of particular concern within both of these emerging groups of students. Especially in the face of decreasing public funds for higher education, affordability will be a significant piece of the challenge facing these student groups, so must be addressed.

They will need effective financial advising, easier access to financial aid, the ability to earn college credits from outside-college learning, and academic and other support services to help them successfully complete their coursework.

In summary, the "typical" college student of tomorrow will face serious challenges and barriers to attaining the post-secondary credentials that will be increasingly required by employers.

While there have been some changes to reflect new student realities, today's higher education delivery models -- including everything from recruitment, acceptance criteria, enrollment management, financial aid, curricula, content delivery, academic support services and student success measures -- are more appropriate for college students of a generation ago.

Higher education leaders and policy makers must adjust to serve the students of the (very near) future, or risk failing in our responsibility to produce an educated citizenry and workforce capable of success in an increasingly global and complex economy. And that, in turn, will have profound implications for the future of our nation.

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