The popular conception of the typical college student — middle- to upper-income young people who just graduated from high school and are enjoying their first taste of freedom while easing into adulthood — is badly outdated, writes Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities and president emeritus of Michigan State University.
In a June 6 Op-Ed for the Washington Post, McPherson points out that modern college students “are now more likely to work, have family commitments and come from low-income backgrounds than in earlier generations.”
While many colleges and universities are adjusting (and must continue to do so), “federal and state higher education policy must also change to meet these students’ unique needs and help them succeed,” he argues.
He outlines the changing demographics:
- Only about half of today’s modern college students fit into the age range that characterizes the outdated idea of traditional college students — those between ages 17 and 21
- More than a quarter are between 22 and 29
- Another 20 percent are 30 or older
- 70 percent work while attending college
- A quarter are handling a full course load while holding down full-time work
- More than a quarter have children
Modern college students are also more likely to move around and earn their degrees piecemeal, McPherson writes. More than half of bachelor’s degree recipients attend more than one institution before graduating.
“Yet the federal graduation rate remains a relic of the past, only reporting on the success of students who started college as full-time students and never transferred,” McPherson writes. “Astonishingly, it counts full-time transfer students as dropouts and entirely omits the 37 percent of students who attend school part-time.”
McPherson also discusses how one-third of undergraduates are first-generation college students and advocates the importance of “proactive advising” that uses “interactive degree planning” to help students graduate in the most efficient way.
“The popular conception of college students is a vestige of a bygone era,” McPherson concludes. “And as more Americans pursue a college education and the opportunities it confers, students will only diverge further from what we consider ‘traditional.’ That’s an unqualified good; it’s also why public universities are working diligently to adapt and meet their needs. It’s past time our federal higher education policy reflected those needs as well.”
By Kevin Hyde, Content Writer, Capture Higher Ed