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Reshaping the College to Avoid Failing the Modern Learner

The EvoLLLution | Reshaping the College to Avoid Failing the Modern Learner
A new kind of student is enrolling in higher education and trends suggest their numbers will only continue to rise. It’s time for institutions to adapt and serve the learners coming through their doors.

Non-traditional students are here to stay. Some 41 percent of students enrolled in higher education are 25 or older. The National Center on Educational Statistics forecasts that the adult student population will continue to grow at a faster rate than traditional students over the next decade. Rather than referring to them as “non-traditional” I propose we think of them as “the future facesof education” and adapt our policies and pedagogy accordingly.

Students’ lives are quite different than we may imagine. Consider this:

  • 1 in 5 is at least 30 years old
  • About half are financially independent from their parents
  • 1 in 4 is caring for a child
  • 47 percent go to school part time at some point
  • A quarter take a year off before starting school

We owe it to these new students to adapt our approaches so that we can prepare them to make strong decisions, be effective citizens and achieve their academic and career goals.

Designing the Institution to Fit Today’s (and Tomorrow’s!) Students

For this cohort of students, upscale gyms with climbing walls, spring break trips to Costa Rica and Greek life are irrelevant. They are not looking for a social life on campus and they are not experiencing independence for the first time when they attend freshman orientation. They often start college with focused academic and career goals and with needs that many colleges are unprepared to meet.

These new students need flexible, affordable and goal-oriented programs that will enable them to efficiently complete their degrees and build their careers. For example, required courses that are only taught once a year, during hours when some students are at their day jobs, can make certain majors inaccessible. Group projects that are designed for full-time student schedules are nearly impossible to complete. Career counselors who haven’t been trained in working with this population are not helpful.

To establish an environment that is designed to meet the needs of these students, a few key shifts are required in the way colleges and universities tend to operate.

First, course schedules need to change. Universities should ensure that all required courses are available in the evening so that students with full-time jobs can attend them. Video hookups in the classroom can allow new parents, and those who live far from campus, to attend lectures without leaving their infants. Online learning can offer even greater flexibility.

Mentoring and guidance programs—key ingredients for student success—should also be retooled. Older students benefit from counselors who understand their situations, life experiences and goals. Imagine you have small children to feed, a spouse who works full time, your own full-time job and classes to study for. The pressure can be intense. Your classwork can easily slip down the priority list temporarily. A counselor who understands your situation can make the difference between managing this situation and dropping out.

Part-time matriculation is another important offering. It is time to stop defining the norm as four classes per semester and a four-year track to graduation.

Finally, universities that offer credit for prior learning can help adult students apply previous coursework or professional experiences to their degree program. Prior learning credits are particularly important to non-traditional students, as many of them have credits from other postsecondary institutions and work experience.

Identifying Barriers to Transformation

There are two central obstacles senior leaders need to address when trying to redesign their institutions to meet the needs of the modern learner.

First, outmoded accreditation metrics penalize schools when students take longer than six years to graduate. They do not acknowledge the myriad reasons students take time off from school. Today’s students may shift between full- and part-time status to accommodate rich, busy and diverse lives. They may need to skip a semester or two to fulfill outside responsibilities, earn money to avoid college debt or seize professional opportunities. In fact, choosing to take longer than six years may be a responsible, laudable decision.

Secondly, lack of awareness among faculty and staff is another significant barrier. Literature points to students being “at risk” if they do not have a strong connection to the institution, if they have low confidence about completing their program or if they have negative feelings about their current educational situation. Faculty and staff need training to deal sensitively with these students, valuing their work experiences, and understanding their time constraints and pressures. Universities can provide a foundation for this by collecting and analyzing data to build a realistic snapshot of the student body.

The Impact is Worth the Effort

Universities need to recognize, appreciate and acknowledge the tremendous assets older students bring to our campuses. Their career and life experiences enable them to add real-world perspectives that enrich and enliven classroom discussions. They have had time to mature and are often better prepared to manage academic stress. They often have clear goals and well-thought out reasons for returning to school. Their goal orientation makes them excellent role models for younger students.

All of these qualities make it a rewarding experience to teach older students. Adapting our universities to meet the needs of these students is essential if we want to continue to thrive.

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