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Who Are Today’s College Students? The Marginalized Majority

Given the depiction of the American college experience in television, movies, and the nightly news, you might think typical high school seniors spend months visiting prospective colleges; writing and rewriting admissions essays; practicing, taking, and retaking standardized tests; and nervously waiting to see if they have been admitted to one or more of the top schools in the country. You might also imagine that most college students are recent high school graduates, attend four-year schools full-time, live on campus, party a little too much on the weekends, and graduate in four years. But this perception is a far cry from the narrative of higher education in this country. As Gail Mellow, the former president of LaGuardia Community College, writes in The New York Times, “the reality is that an increasingly small population of undergraduates enjoys that kind of life.”

Here are the facts:

The Marginalized Majority

How have postsecondary demographics changed over time? According to the American Council on Education, students of color now make up more than 45 percent of the undergraduate population, compared with less than 30 percent two decades ago. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that from 1976 to 2015, the percentage of Hispanic college students rose from 4 percent to 17 percent. In the same time period, the percentage of African American students increased from 10 percent to 14 percent, while the percentage of white students fell from 84 percent to 58 percent. A new report from the Pew Research Center says the number of college students who live in poverty has increased from 12 percent in 1996 to 20 percent in 2016. Women now compose about 56 percent of total undergraduate enrollment.

Diversity is now a fact of life in the American postsecondary student body. There are more students of color, first-generation college students, full-time workers, students from low-income backgrounds, and students with children than ever before, and based on graduation statistics, they are not getting the support they need. Fifty percent of students who enter college fail to earn a degree. Navigating the maze of academic life while struggling with day-to-day financial and life challenges makes success tenuous for many students. As the facts about changing student demographics become clear, how can government and college policy shift to ensure the success of the majority of students in this country?

One of the biggest obstacles facing today’s college students is an educational system designed to serve an outdated model of the typical student. Most colleges were designed for students who came to college straight from high school with prerequisites in place. They were likely to have parents who had also attended college and could help them navigate the admissions and enrollment process. Their finances allowed them to attend school full-time, live on campus, and focus on academic success, first and foremost. Although today’s typical students look very different, colleges and universities look very much the same. Many schools haven’t established new systems to accommodate the needs of this diverse student body—like flexible class schedules; online learning; improved advising and mentoring; and easier to access financial aid, application, and enrollment processes—leading to many challenges that affect academic performance and completion rates.

Just as important is the lack of funding for schools and programs serving the majority of students. For many, college is too expensive. Those who are able to attend face a lack of support for services like mentoring and tutoring and for curriculum and program development. As Mellow affirms, “Community colleges educate the majority of our country’s low-income, first-generation students. But public funding for community colleges is significantly less than for four-year colleges.”

The inequity in our system of higher education means that, for most students, college is not the promised bridge to opportunity and a better life nor is it tapping into the talents and abilities of these students as future members of our workforce. According to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, “Recent estimates show that the nation will need 11 million more workers with some form of high-quality post-high-school education by 2025 than our system is currently on course to produce. . . . Advancing equity in educational opportunity is both an economic necessity and a moral imperative.”

What Can Be Done? What Is Being Done?

While many colleges have a long way to go before they meet the diverse needs of today’s students, there are a number of schools redesigning systems and developing programs to put the success of all students at the center of their work.  To that end, some schools are offering flexible class scheduling, tailored financial aid, online options, improved advising, mentoring programs, and more. Western Governors University (WGU) is a nonprofit, all-online school founded by nineteen United States governors in 1997, on the premise that twenty-first-century students would be different from students in the past and would need a new kind of education. WGU offers flexible start dates for students whose lives don’t fit neatly into a semester schedule. In addition, they are a competency-based school, meaning students progress through courses as soon as they can prove they’ve mastered the material, rather than advancing only when the semester or term ends. If students have prior work or school experience in their field of study, they can apply that knowledge to accelerate their degree completion. Advising and mentoring are also integral to WGU’s mission. Delaware State University uses analytics software to track student progress closely and catch signs that an undergraduate is falling behind before it’s too late. Students are also required to see their adviser three times per semester regardless of grades or performance. The University of Nebraska, Lincoln, provides a convenient Web page for first-generation students with resources such as guides on how to apply to the school, enroll in courses, and navigate everything from learning communities to financial aid. River Parishes Community College offers online classes and online tutorial sessions taught by professors to accommodate students who might have jobs or children to care for, which would make it challenging for them to attend classes in person. River Parishes calls these hybrid classes, which means that, in addition to distance learning, there is required face-to-face interaction with instructors.

Other innovations, such as encouraging participation in learning communities, minimizing noncredit remediation classes, and integrating advising and study skills directly into instructional programs, are being implemented in some schools with great outcomes for students. But, as Gail Mellow argues, without increased funding for the schools where more and more students are being educated and without better financial aid resources for those students, they will not get the support they need to graduate, contribute to society, and make better lives for themselves and their families. Raising society’s awareness about who attends college and the challenges they face is the first step toward addressing education inequity. A commitment to changes in policy and practice by government and colleges is vital to removing the real but surmountable obstacles that stand between the marginalized majority of students and a college degree.


Photo by via flickr

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