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Addressing the Changing Demographics of the New College Student

The EvoLLLution | Addressing the Changing Demographics of the New College Student
Non-traditional students compose the majority of the postsecondary student population, but colleges and universities across the board have been slow in adapting to serve the needs of these learners. That needs to change.

When most people think of the “typical” college experience, they imagine 18- to 24-year-olds walking across picturesque grassy quads between stately brick buildings at a four-year institution. That’s simply no longer the case. The characteristics of the traditional college student today have shifted. Non-traditional college students are now the new majority.

For these students, earning a degree is a competing priority—as they are juggling school with full-time jobs and family commitments at the same time. Oftentimes, these students are returning to college after being away for some time and need to grasp new technologies. Or they may find that their busy schedule makes keeping up with coursework a challenge. One of the biggest ways the higher education system fails these students is by not identifying their unique needs, which can inform the necessary interventions to keep students on course before they drop out without a degree.

So, what exactly is the makeup of a non-traditional college student? What are their unique challenges and barriers? And, how can higher education institutions keep pace with the changing needs of this growing majority, whose challenges are often overlooked?

Understanding the New Majority

According to the 2016 College Experience Survey from Strayer University and U.S. News & World Report’s Marketing and Business Intelligence Teams, 70 percent of Americans who have pursued a bachelor’s degree qualify as non-traditional students. The survey categorized a traditional student as someone who pursued a bachelor’s degree full-time while under age 25 and who was also claimed as a dependent on someone else’s tax return during their schooling.

More specifically, “non-traditional” students were classified as those who:

  • Received a GED or equivalent
  • Were employed full-time (35 hours or more per week) while in school
  • Were enrolled as a part-time student while pursuing their bachelor’s degree
  • Were 25 or older when they finished their bachelor’s degree
  • Were 25 or older when they were last enrolled in a bachelor’s degree program

The survey found non-traditional students are more demographically diverse and place more value on scheduling flexibility, employability and affordability than traditional 18- to 24-year-old college students. In addition, non-traditional students more closely reflect the overall U.S. population—33 percent are racial minorities, compared to just 12 percent of traditional students and roughly 38 percent of the total U.S. population.

Non-traditional students are also more likely to be currently employed full-time. In fact, 59 percent of non-traditional students have full-time jobs, compared to 43 percent of traditional students. Not surprising, non-traditional students also earn higher wages, with 58 percent earning $60,000 per year or more, compared to 43 percent of traditional students.

Unique Challenges

Non-traditional students are not minors receiving financial support from their parents and indecisive on how to springboard into life. Many are already juggling real-world responsibilities when they pursue or complete their degree. As a result, they want programs that are comprehensive, cost-efficient, flexible and relevant.

Non-traditional students exhibit significant differences in the reasons why they choose to pursue a bachelor’s degree, compared to traditional students. Specifically, non-traditional students had practical reasons to get a bachelor’s degree. Fifty-four percent of non-traditional students were motivated by the hope of getting a better job, 45 percent cited it was the next logical step, 42 percent noted that it was a stepping stone to future education, 35 percent pursued a degree to study a topic of interest, and 27 percent wanted to prove they could do it.

In contrast, traditional students’ reasons were more rooted in expectations. Traditional students pursued a bachelor’s degree because it was the next logical step (62 percent), to get a job (49 percent), to study a topic of interest (41 percent), to get a better job (41 percent) and their family wanted them to (30 percent).

While traditional and non-traditional students have different reasons for why they chose to earn a bachelor’s degree, they also weigh separate factors when determining where to attend college. Traditional students care more about the school’s look and feel, such as the overall reputation of the institution (53 percent), the quality of the faculty (33 percent), the campus aesthetics (24 percent) and the quality of social life (22 percent). Meanwhile, non-traditional students care more about convenience and amenities, such as scheduling flexibility (24 percent), availability of online courses (12 percent) and tutoring services (5 percent).

Adapt to Meet the Needs

Based on the survey findings, we believe higher education must adapt to meet the needs of non-traditional students by implementing the following:

  • Increase online learning: Non-traditional students are more likely to take evening and weekend classes and to take 25 percent or more of their courses online. Colleges and universities should adapt to the changing demographic makeup of their student body to better accommodate the needs of these students. By offering more classes online, non-traditional students can better juggle other priorities while completing coursework on their own schedule.
  • Provide wider availability of services: Given many non-traditional students take courses in the evenings, higher education institutions need to adapt their student support services including office hours to accommodate different schedules. Non-traditional students should have the same access to tutoring services and the admissions and financial aid counselors as traditional students. 
  • Enable data-driven faculty interventions: Higher education institutions must work to implement data-driven interventions to better meet the needs of non-traditional students. At its core, data analytics provides accurate and targeted analysis of student performance, which ultimately helps students improve their education experience and gives faculty insights to assess and tailor instruction, so students can receive the appropriate inspiration or intervention. This is especially important for non-traditional students, who may not have frequent interactions with their professors.

The characteristics of today’s college students have changed. They are more focused on the tangible when choosing, experiencing and assessing their education. By addressing the unique needs of this new majority, we can help improve higher education overall.

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