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What Adults Want: Exploring the Higher Ed Landscape for Adult Undergraduate Students

The EvoLLLution | What Adults Want: Exploring the Higher Ed Landscape for Adult Undergraduate Students
Non-traditional students have become the new majority in the higher education space, and there are myriad options for them to pursue their higher education credential. But it can be difficult to discern which option is the right one.

Some four years ago, Frederick Hess writing in The Atlanticbrought broad public awareness to trends that insiders in higher education had long observed. He noted statistics that still hold today (according to the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics and the most recent U.S. Census surveys): adult students over the age of 25 constitute nearly 40 percent of all those enrolled in higher education. And nearly 18 percent are over the age of 35. Younger or older, close to 40 percent ofall students pursue their degrees on a part-time basis. And that’s hardly a wonder, since nearly a third of all students work full-time.

Perhaps the most stunning realization in Hess’s article was that only a fraction of the national undergraduate population resembles what was long the normative perception (however false) of the representative college student: an 18- to 22-year-old, studying full-time and living on campus, free to study around the clock in rapt philosophical conversations with classmates or to swallow goldfish in hazing rituals. This “traditional undergraduate” in the popular imagination is now correctly understood to be a member of a minority (less than one-sixth) of all those enrolled in some form of undergraduate education in the United States.

It’s a privilege to be able to be traditional. We cherish and honor certain traditions as part of our societal glue, respect for the past, continuity with the best in our collective belief systems. But think of a drop-down menu on a furniture website: “traditional” is a choice of styles among many. And increasingly it is, in the narrowest sense, a privilege to be traditional, not a universal expectation. North American higher education is not a system as such, but a highly varied, competitive sector in our knowledge-based economy. The breathtaking emergence of for-profit providers has indeed altered the general landscape, as of course has the advent of technology-delivered education. But if we think in terms of seismic shifts, these newer participants in the provision of educational opportunity haven’t shaken up how well-established, selective universities and liberal arts and engineering colleges conduct the business of teaching and research. They may have been thrust up ever higher.

All the marketing investments of the newcomers have strengthened the power of brand identity. While many a college president and board chair over the past twenty years may have stared anxiously at the onslaught of the for-profits and technology-enhanced education, the evidence shows that the elite institutions—reinforced by rankings, productivity and celebrity of faculty, selectivity of admission criteria and the power of alumni networks—have only strengthened their magnetic pull for highly qualified younger students from around the world who want their globally recognized brands of higher education. Those who thought the sky was falling failed both to discern the capacity of prospective students to make discriminating judgments, and to imagine that the “new” market-driven realities would not drive well-established institutions to extinction, but create their own places alongside them. It’s telling that applications for the current class of prospective freshmen in every sector of higher education is up—except for a sharp decline among the least effective of the for-profits, whose students had the worst outcomes and often the highest debt. Word gets out.

This said, for the non-traditional higher education community, we are not marginal but mainstream. The facts are known. We serve a substantial plurality and arguably the emerging majority of students in the global enterprise of higher education.

But who are we? What’s our taxonomy? What should guide the decision-making of prospective adult degree-seekers in choosing the right educational institutions for them that are structured to support those who are pursuing their degrees on a part-time or flexible basis, whether by choice or necessity? Many rigorous public institutions have well-developed online degree programs with exacting standards that serve regional and distant students simultaneously. There are innovative private not-for-profit and public institutions which offer modular curricula—that can be taken on-site or online—structured to accommodate the complicated rhythms of working adults whose schedules are not likely to mirror “standard” semester-length programs. A good number of distinguished private and public research universities house longstanding colleges/schools/programs that focus on serving adult undergraduates. There are for-profits who meet credible academic standards in niche professional fields, and have very responsible support services. And of course community colleges have long been the place where older students take their first steps to return to higher education, to start a degree or a specialized career-oriented certification.

But these institutional differences may not be the most pertinent distinctions to inform prospective students’ choice of institution.

This is the first installment of Robert Lapiner’s two-part series, “What Adults Want”. In the second installment, he will discuss college ratings, the America’s College Promise proposal and share the top ten priorities for adults seeking an undergraduate credential.

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