Four-year institutions brace for population shifts
Colleges and universities are accepting many more students of color, many more students from working class and poor families, and many more people who are sometimes referred to as "nontraditional" students.
This essay is a product of the larger radio documentary The New Face of College, which you can listen to in its entirety on this website or on our podcast feed (iTunes).
Colleges and universities in the United States are in the midst of a dramatic transformation. They are accepting many more students of color, many more students from working class and poor families, and many more people who are sometimes referred to as “nontraditional” students.
The complexion of the American college campus is still predominantly white. But that is changing. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, since 1976, the percentage of white students has dropped from 84 to 61. Black students now make up more than 15 percent of college enrollment. Hispanic students make up more than 14 percent.
Colleges are seeing more older students, as a changing economy leads more adults to return to school. More than 40 percent of today’s college students are over 24 years old.
And colleges are seeing more students who work full time, as the high cost of education, combined with increasing income inequality, means more students have to work while they’re pursuing degrees.
A 2002 report from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), found that the number of so-called nontraditional students is rising. At that time, nearly three-quarters of American college students were nontraditional. Experts say the trend is continuing.
The report defines students as nontraditional if they have any one of a list of attributes. A nontraditional student is someone who:
goes to school part time,
works full time while attending,
delayed going to college after high school, or
did not finish high school.
By that definition, most college students in America today are nontraditional.
The NCES report found that only 27 percent of undergraduates were “traditional students,” meaning someone who “earns a high school diploma, enrolls full time immediately after finishing high school, depends on parents for financial support, and either does not work during the school year or works part time.”
But these are the students most colleges were set up to educate.
“We have long tradition of higher ed serving a particular sector of the American public and not serving the majority,” says Gloria Nemerowiscz, executive director of Yes We Must, a coalition of colleges that serve low-income students.
Nemerowiscz says getting more people through college leads to a host of good things: healthier families, healthier communities, higher voting levels. She says it is crucial for American higher education to do a better job of serving the modern-day student if the United States is to stay competitive in the global economy.
A study from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce says that the number of college graduates is America is not keeping pace with the demand in the marketplace for people with degrees, and that the United States is falling behind other countries. To close the gap, colleges have to recruit a more diverse group of students — and get those students through to graduation.
But research shows that so-called nontraditional students are less likely to finish college than their traditional classmates. The biggest challenge is money. College costs have risen rapidly over the past 20 years and government aid to students hasn’t kept up. Nontraditional students may end up spending more than others because they often have to take remedial classes to catch up, in addition to the coursework required for a degree.
Another challenge is that many colleges and universities just aren’t designed for this group of students. They may not schedule classes when working students can take them. They may not offer childcare. And they may not offer the help first-generation students need to navigate an unfamiliar academic world.
American RadioWorks visited three colleges that are struggling to meet these challenges. They’re trying to serve the new student by changing everything from how the dorms are set up, to how they teach, to what they mean when they talk about success.