The stereotype of America’s traditional college student needs to change
Today’s traditional college student isn’t who you might picture.
This student isn’t an undergraduate at a large university flanked by picturesque brick pathways and perfectly manicured green grass. In fact, only about 16% of college students are an example of the conventional description i.e. financially dependent on their parents, in college full time, living on campus, and between the ages of 18-22.
The remaining 84% are far from homogenous.
This fall, nearly 20 million college students will enroll in college programs online — with ethnicities including American Indian, Asian and Pacific Islander, Hispanic, Black, and White. More than a third are twenty-five or older, and they will choose between a wide variety of institutions. Most of these students are coming to college for the first time or returning to college after several years — or even decades — as a member of the workforce. Almost half are part-time students, and 49% are financially independent. A mere 13% live on campus, and 64% will continue to work while in school. Nearly a quarter are parents, and more than half will attend a two-year college.
Due to the incredible array of backgrounds and preferences among this population, working adults require a collegiate experience that differs from their stereotypical counterparts. They care about things like flexibility, support systems, and affordability. The working adult college student can’t afford college without financial support, as crippling student debt is not an option.
So, what options are available for these students?
To help students fulfill life obligations while capitalizing on educational opportunities, universities and faculty are restructuring current programs. Creating a program in which working adults want to participate requires a firm understanding of this demographic’s needs and challenges. New students need information about how to enroll in school, balance classes with a full workload, and graduate with specific degrees. Online courses and evening classes are easier to fit into an extremely busy schedule, meaning schools need to offer a high level of flexibility. Extended office hours and dedicated advisors are also a vital resource for this demographic, who have varying degrees of support within their personal lives. Innovative new policies that serve working adults include accelerated course completion, credits for what students have learned elsewhere, and services outside standard working hours.
All of these adjustments to education are part of a larger trend: For many, a job is now the first step towards long-term career growth. Education no longer ignites a designated career path for today’s workforce. It’s not uncommon for young workers to change jobs multiple times before the age of 32. And, almost half of Americans believe additional education is necessary to advance in their careers. This belief, combined with low unemployment rates, is leading America’s workforce to place a new value on companies that provide education as a benefit.
In the last few years, forward-thinking employers have begun partnering with universities to offer employees a chance to go back to school and tailor their skills to align with both company goals and the future of work. Disruptive technologies and industries put even more pressure on employers to offer education benefits to employees. The looming promise of mass automation and emergence of AI threatens to push millions of people out of their jobs — leaving employers with a paralyzing skills gap.
So, the stereotypical undergraduate — one who enters a university directly after completing high school — is actually a sliver of today’s population. The non-traditional college student — a financially-independent working adult older than 25 — is, in fact, the most traditional.