The Forgotten College Student

Who do you typically think about when you visualize someone going to college? Is he or she one of the more than three million high school students graduating each year? Or is he or she one of the 43 million Americans over the age of 25 who have enrolled in an education program beyond high school, but have not finished their degree or certificate?

Eager students straight out of high school once filled college classrooms, while many of today's college students work full-time jobs, have a family, and are enrolled in school part time. This new breed of college student is reshaping the face of higher education in America.

Despite the size and opportunity presented by this population, we've paid a lot less attention and developed far fewer initiatives to support these 43 million students than we have for the more traditional college student. In fact, some proposals designed to improve success in college for traditional-age students could further restrict opportunities for returning adult students to succeed in higher education. Limited financial aid for returning adult students and remote course access with limited human contact are some of the new initiatives that will hinder former students from returning to college and succeeding in higher education.

So who are these 43 million forgotten students, and how do we help them? They are a little older than traditional college students and have either returned or thought about returning for more education after high school. Most likely, they're individuals who hope to learn something new, earn a degree or certificate, and get a new or better job in the process.

Here are a few thoughts the education industry should consider when promoting or undertaking efforts to help these forgotten students:

  1. Make sure that any new financial aid resources and technology-based offerings under discussion won't limit the access of adult students returning to complete their education.

  • Adapt new and improved information resources and academic offerings tailored to the needs of returning students. For example, a blended learning curriculum that provides guidance and tangible skill building would foster the most beneficial learning environment. Blended learning entails more time with individual teachers and enables students to personalize their learning in and outside of school.
  • Provide these adult students with more robust support systems and communities that help them manage the pressures and processes of returning to college.
  • I'm not arguing to take services away from traditional-age students in an effort to serve adult returning students. Both need help. But there are two major reasons the adult population is so important. First, they represent the key to achieving vital national goals for higher education as well as many of society's goals, including a growing economy, personal financial success, community health, civic engagement, critical thinking, and on and on. Second, these students will help not only themselves, but will also become positive role models for younger family members and friends, rather than reinforcing the fears of those who already hear the drumbeat of naysayers about the academic and financial challenges of completing college.

    What can we do to help these 43 million people? More than anything else, they want the guidance and support to help make their return trip to college a success. Encouragement has come from a wide array of public figures including President Obama, philanthropies and foundations such as the Lumina Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and The Kresge Foundation, and community-based organizations and volunteers nationwide.

    I invite you to help get this conversation started, especially if you, a family member, or a friend is one of the millions who have dropped out. Your families need you. Your communities need you. And your country needs you.