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Today’s College Students Aren’t Who You Think They Are. Institutions Must Rethink How They Serve Them.

A college education gave Aracely Bahenat access to a career in health care that enabled her to provide a better life for her three sons and escape violent domestic abuse. Aracely’s return to school 20 years after her first try wasn’t only about earning a degree. It was about overcoming adversity, gaining control of her life and finding a path to a better future.

Julie PellerJulie PellerAracely is hardly alone. Four in every 10 college undergraduates leave school before completing a degree. These college stopouts have grown into a population of more than 40 million American adults who have some college credit but no degree.

Indeed, significant numbers of today’s college students no longer conform to the traditional notion of someone in their late teens or early 20s who matriculated to a four-year university straight out of high school. A third of today’s college students are 25 and older, and more than a third of undergraduates are part-time students. More than half are first-generation students, which means that their parents didn’t earn bachelor’s degrees, and more than 40% identify as a race other than white. Three out of 10 speak a primary language other than English, and two out of 10 have some type of disability.

Today’s college students also face significant time and financial responsibilities off campus. Almost 80% of students work, with 30% employed full-time. Some 41% receive Pell Grants, and 13% live in households that receive SNAP benefits. College students are more likely than the general population to experience food or housing insecurity. Like Aracely, nearly 20% have dependent children.

Unfortunately, too many postsecondary institutions do a poor job with today’s students. College completion rates for older students and historically disadvantaged learners continue to lag behind those of students who are white or of traditional age. Students with the lowest incomes are significantly less likely to enroll, persist and graduate from college.

To better serve today’s students, postsecondary institutions must acknowledge their lived experiences and the multiple responsibilities their students carry outside the classroom. One size doesn’t fit all in higher education. By implementing practices and supports intentionally designed for today’s students, especially those from households in the bottom 20% of income earners, institutions can dramatically improve student outcomes. Here are three strategies college leaders should embrace:

First, let’s foster more programs that meet students where they are and offer what they’re seeking. The fact that more than half of new graduates hold jobs that don’t require a degree suggest that postsecondary institutions are failing to help students figure out what they want to study in college, much less what they want to do after they finish. Education and training programs should have clear and actionable pathways for students to achieve upward mobility throughout their lives. This starts with short-term credentials that help graduates gain entry to a specific career field in industries that are hiring. These programs should provide clear paths to meaningful careers with no detours or unnecessary courses. Faculty and staff must work to center their schedules around the learner, not vice versa.

Eric BingEric BingSecondly, many of today’s students work, care for children, or have other responsibilities. Practices like starting programs quarterly or even monthly and reducing the number of days students must come to campus for hands-on or clinical instruction can better accommodate students’ schedules. Didactic instruction can be offered virtually, with asynchronous options, to eliminate the barrier of travel time and gas money to come for a campus lecture.

Finally, finances are the number one reason why students drop out of college. For many students, and especially those who are already financially-stressed, any unexpected expense — even a relatively minor one — can be the difference between graduating and not. Holistic wrap-around services that support the lived experience of today’s college students must be included in financial assistance support. A recent study by the Center for Higher Education Policy and Practice found a positive relationship at one large online university between just-in-time emergency grants to pay for basic needs, such as housing, food and childcare, and persistence toward a college credential. Helping overcome barriers, no matter how small, can increase the likelihood that students will return for the next term and complete enough credits to stay on track to finish their credentials.

Enrolling, supporting, and graduating students like Aracely requires a different mindset and academic structure. Fortunately, it is doable, scalable, and economically viable in ways that can improve outcomes both for significant numbers of today’s students and the colleges that serve them. The College of Health Care Professions recognized the changes in student demographics and designed programs centered on today’s learners, including Aracely, who has now started her career as a nationally certified medical coding and billing specialist.

A looming challenge for today’s colleges is finding ways to re-engage adult learners. More accessible policies and practices can help ensure today’s students have what they need to complete a higher education.

Julie Peller is the executive director of Higher Learning Advocates.

Eric Bing is chancellor and CEO of The College of Health Care Professions.

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