Higher education must change to reflect shifting student demographics

The profile of today’s college-going population looks much different than it did decades ago, when the average student was a fresh-faced 18-year-old moving directly from high school to campus. Students today are older, more experienced in work, and more socioeconomically and racially diverse than their peers of decades past. 

But higher education has been slow to catch up to this new reality – to the detriment of thousands of students. The ways we provide instruction, finance education, market the college experience, and measure student learning still look much like they did years ago. And as we cling to outdated models, thousands of the college students in this new demographic are dropping out and sinking into debt at higher-than-average rates. 

ADVERTISEMENT
Recent reports, including one released last month by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), highlight this pressing problem. The IWPR report shows that a quarter of those in college today– 4.8 million students – are raising dependent children, and more than half of those students are single parents. 

And according to the IWPR report, only 33 percent of those students with children complete their degrees within six years, compared with the somewhat higher but still abysmally low national average of 54 percent. Students with children also average about $28,350 in student debt, compared with the $25,169 their non-parent peers carry. 

These data should be a clarion call for policymakers, educators, employers and other stakeholders to redesign education beyond high school. By doing so, they have an opportunity to dramatically increase our nation’s college attainment rates and close the pressing talent gap America faces in years ahead. 

The changing college demographics signify that people who once lacked the opportunity to go to college today can access higher education.  By shifting the way we deliver college to help meet these students’ needs, we can create a higher education system that works better for everyone – students, educators and employers – and create a populace that is better poised for future success. 

This is especially important, given that an estimated 65 percent of jobs will require some form of postsecondary education by 2020, and today less than 40 percent of Americans hold two- or four-year degrees. Three essential shifts will help us create a system that is centered on the needs of today’s students: 

First, maximize the impact of financial aid: Both higher education leaders and policymakers ought to make accessing financial aid as seamless as possible by simplifying the application process. They also must ensure that resources to help cover college’s cost, such as tax credits, grants and loans, reach students with the greatest need. To create incentives for students to graduate, colleges should reward those who make rapid progress and actually complete their degrees. And we should ensure that our public resources designed to promote career success – workforce development funds, for example – are deployed to advance college attainment. 

Second, measure student learning, not classroom time: We continue to assess student readiness for degrees by time spent in the classroom, rather than the learning that’s obtained. This outdated model – based on the credit hour – is especially problematic in light of changing student demographics. Increasingly, today’s students have on-the-job training, military experience or a patchwork of past studies that can’t be counted towards a degree or credential. Shifting to a system that measures competency--what students know and can do--would make prior learning more relevant and accelerate time to completion. 

Finally, democratize high-quality instruction: As the new study illustrates, today’s college students are increasingly splitting time among class, work and family obligations. Given this, it’s imperative that we make the knowledge and skills needed to obtain degrees and credentials more accessible, while also maintaining a high bar for quality. This could include embracing approaches such as dual-enrollment for high school students, or using technology to make entire programs of study more widely accessible. 

The changing profile of our nation’s college population represents progress toward the goal of giving more Americans, regardless of backgrounds or economic circumstances, a chance at success. But to maximize this opportunity, we must fundamentally change the higher education system to meet the needs of the new students we’re serving. 

And we should move quickly towards this change, not just for the sake of 4.8 million college students raising children, but for all of us who benefit economically and socially from a better educated nation. 

Merisotis is president and CEO of Lumina Foundation, the nation's largest private foundation committed solely to enrolling and graduating more students from college.