As college students resume classes this month, it prompts many of us to recall our first college semester: fresh out of high school, moving into a dorm room, and buying books at the campus bookstore.  That experience no longer reflects the reality for most of today’s college students.

Consider that just a third of today’s college students are who we used to consider “traditional”–18-to 21-year olds attending school full-time. Even fewer live on campus.  Today, 38 percent of students are older than 25; a quarter of students are raising children; and students work, on average, 19 hours per week. What’s more, many of today’s students are struggling to support themselves financially – with 42 percent of first-year students living near or below the poverty line.


Despite these shifts, by and large, college still operates much as it used to, when many students went straight from their childhood homes to living and studying full-time on campus. As a result, too often the needs of today’s students are not being met, and it’s tougher for those enrolled in postsecondary education to fare well under the current system. The realities about college completion bear that out.

Over the last four decades, the gap between the percentage of low-income and high-income students enrolling in college has narrowed substantially – from a 46-point gap in 1970 to a 36-point gap in 2012 – but in the growth in college completion among low-income students hasn’t kept pace. Just 9 percent of students from the lowest-income families earned bachelor’s degrees in 2013, up from 6 percent in 1970, according to a study released this year by the Pell Institute and the University of Pennsylvania. 

And low-income students aren’t the only group who are struggling to complete college. Only a quarter of part-time students graduate, even when given twice as long to complete, and 38 percent of students with additional work and family obligations leave school within their first year. What’s more, while enrollment among black students has grown by 72 percent and Hispanic enrollment has tripled over the last 15 years, attainment rates among students of color still lag behind those of their white peers.

In other words, even as we strive to get more students to enroll in college, we’re falling behind as a nation in ensuring they complete it. The result is a long line of prospective graduates left without degrees and, in some cases, saddled with debt.

Improving these outcomes is critical if we’re to ensure all students have the opportunity to excel in the 21stcentury workforce. It’s also imperative to our nation’s economic success and global leadership. More than two-thirds of jobs will require postsecondary education by 2020, and as it stands, we have far too few people with the skills and knowledge – the talent -- to fill those positions.

Federal lawmakers have an opportunity to make a significant dent in our attainment problem by updating federal policy to better serve today’s college majority. Three reforms could make a substantial difference in meeting students’ needs:

·         Redesigning financial aid so that students who need financial support can access it, and so that aid is not a barrier for students pursuing pathways beyond the traditional, two-semester approach. Aid also should be delivered in a way that’s flexible enough to meet unanticipated costs that may arise throughout a student’s term, and loans should be repayable in a reasonable period and at a fair rate. It’s also critical to simplify the aid-application process. 

·         Reforming student data collection would make this information more powerful in telling policymakers and students what they need to know. Current data focus predominantly on full-time, first-time students, rather than the full spectrum of people who represent today’s college enrollees. Data should be broadened to include all of today’s students, and, because many students transfer from school to school, it should be comparable across state lines. Students also must be able to readily access information and understand financial aid and college costs before enrolling.

·         Enabling institutions to innovate so they can pursue different approaches to higher education that better meet a diverse body of students’ needs. This includes creating policies that incentivize postsecondary providers to collaborate – with the goal of advancing student success; streamlining regulations to remove unnecessary obstacles to innovation; and testing approaches to allow student aid to cover enrollment in new models for higher education, such as those that measure students’ progress based on experience and learning, rather than the credit hour.

Addressing the college-completion gap won’t happen overnight, and policy changes alone can’t get us there. Full success will require the combined efforts of policymakers, higher education institutions, parents and students. But Washington can – and must –play a leading role by setting an agenda for what needs to happen to help all of today’s students thrive.

Merisotis is president and CEO of Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation and author of “America Needs Talent: Attracting, Educating & Deploying the 21st-Century Workforce.”