by Kimberly Yavorski

Despite ever-changing demographics on college campuses, policies have remained largely stagnant. If they are to succeed in today’s world, colleges need to adapt to meet changing needs.

In this article we will cover:

  • Understanding the demographics
  • More older students
  • More parenting students
  • More working students
  • More first generation students
  • More low-income students
  • More stressed students
  • More diverse students

Understanding the demographics

It is time for institutions to take a hard look at themselves and re-evaluate priorities. Some schools, such as Amarillo College in Texas, have recognized that a culture change was needed—and as a result, have been pleased to see graduation and retention numbers rise and in some cases, more than double. 

Sara Goldrick-Rab, Professor of Higher Education Policy and Sociology at Temple University and Director of the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice in Philadelphia, points out that most institutions can do more. 

“We say in higher ed that we care about data and evidence. We spend a lot of time acting like we’re scientists, but we very rarely stop and actually look at the data and evidence on the students we are now educating,” she says. “To understand the demographics, look at the latest data on students. Once you stop and look at what you really have, you will probably see something really different than when you started your job 10 or 20 years ago.”

Goldrick-Rab continues, “If you take a limited view of who can succeed at your institution and if you believe that people cannot succeed at your institution, my question is: Why? Why aren’t you fit to educate people from diverse backgrounds? What kind of institution thinks it is high quality, but can only educate a certain kind of student?” 

There are more older students

While the majority of students entering higher education are still coming straight from high school, more than 47 percent are over 25 years old, and 40 percent of those are over 35. These students typically have different reasons for attending college than those straight out of high school. They may need to update skills or learn new ones for a career change, or maybe they finally believe a college education is financially feasible. These students tend to already be in the workforce and may have families, so they often have more restrictive schedules. For this reason, they are more likely to seek out online classes or those that meet on evenings and weekends rather than the “traditional” schedule that so many institutions still use. Accelerated class schedules are especially helpful for these students.

More students are parents

A recent Government Accountability Office report estimates that 4.3 million undergraduate students are parents. About 55 percent of students who are also mothers are single parents, and 44 percent of student parents also work full time. 

Student parents are not limited to those over age 25. Goldrick-Rab notes that today, colleges are seeing more teen moms on campuses. “They didn’t used to go to college at all,” she says. “Now they do, and they come to college with a young child.” These students have challenges your typical 18-year-old cannot even conceptualize.

More college students are parents

Source: Government Accountability Office

With monthly child care costs averaging almost $500, it is little surprise that more than half of student parents drop out before completing a degree. Federal CCAMPIS (Child Care Access Means Parents in School) grants provide subsidized childcare, but in 2016-17, only 3,300 students received these grants. Students can also turn to additional federal loans or other federal programs (which are often contingent on work requirements) to pay for childcare, but students are rarely aware these funding options exist. Institutions can help by factoring in childcare costs when determining the cost of attendance (thereby making more financial aid available), and/or providing childcare centers on campus, as well as connect students with outside resources.

There are more working students

According to the report, Learning While Earning: The New Normal, about 40 percent of undergraduates and 76 percent of graduate students work at least 30 hours a week. Not only does this leave little time to devote to studies, it also means that unpaid internships, which are often key to finding employment after graduation, are almost impossible for these students. Working students may not have the flexibility to adjust their work hours each semester, making it difficult to take required courses and often postponing their graduation date. Colleges need to consider these challenges and provide work-friendly class schedules, office hours, and student services such as financial aid and tutoring services.

Professors can also play a role. Goldrick-Rab outlines her method of meeting student needs: 

“I, as a teacher, start the semester not using anything that isn’t absolutely free. I assume nothing about what is going to happen in my classroom until I get to know my students. I actually make my job at the beginning of the semester to figure out what’s really going to go on in the classroom. How many of them are working and how many hours, what are they actually going to be able to do in terms of homework. I am not lowering my standards, I’m adjusting the work so that I can figure out where to place the standards and the bar to get them to the outcome that I desire. That whole idea of adapting is missing in most of higher ed.

working students needs

Source—Learning while earning: the new normal.

More students are first generation

First-generation students don’t have the advantage of ready advice from home, or in some cases, even a basic understanding of the demands of college life. Since their parents have no clear reference of what to expect, first-generation students are even more of a disadvantage in today’s era of “snowplow parenting” than they were thirty years ago. Parents of first-gen students may expect them to have a job in addition to school work to cover their personal expenses or even to help support the family. Parents who didn’t attend college don’t know to encourage students to talk to their adviser, how to navigate the often-complicated financial aid system, and rarely have connections to call on to provide internship opportunities.

 First-generation students in particular may be lost when it comes to navigating available resources on campus. Some students are unaware of the purpose of faculty office hours or know where to turn for help. Many students won’t share feelings of insecurity with fellow students; parents who have not had the college experience cannot reassure them that these feelings are normal. Mentoring programs where advisors or coaches reach out to students regularly have demonstrated success. A 2011 Stanford study showed that students who were coached had higher retention rates than those who were not.

More students are low income

The number of Pell Grant recipients has increased over the past decade, from 25 percent to 32 percent. Unfortunately, the percentage of tuition that those grants cover has declined, and now covers only 60 percent of the cost of a public school and 17 percent of private tuition. In addition, other costs have risen dramatically. Housing and food costs can surpass tuition costs, and books alone can cost $1,000 per semester.

To avoid making students choose between food and housing or books, schools can re-evaluate their teaching materials and even consider open educational resources. Institutional grants and emergency aid can help retain students. A dedicated resource person on campus can assist students who are eligible for government and community resources, but don’t have the time to seek them out. This can be in the form of a social worker or a housing director who can help find safe, affordable housing and provide assistance when things go wrong (such as landlord issues). Financial aid officers knowledgeable about state and federal aid programs and how to apply for them can help students avoid periods of financial crisis that might impact their education.

Students can’t possibly know what they don’t know. Many believe they are ineligible for assistance programs. “Somebody has to tell them,” Goldrick-Rab says—and often help them with the paperwork. The FAFSA is easy compared to the SNAP or HUD housing assistance program applications. She says that while advising students on what classes to pick is important, “they’re not going to BE in class if they don’t deal with the other stuff.”

Photo by from Pexels

Photo by from Pexels

More students are stressed

Anxiety and depression have become a major issue on college campuses; counseling centers struggle to keep up with the demand for appointments. Goldrick-Rab is not surprised. “Young people feel this incredible sense of pressure to get ahead as quickly as possible to become secure. And they seem to be aware that the world around them is not nearly as supportive as it once was (and should be). That leads to depression. Childhood has been disappearing.” 

Today’s 18-year-old is different, she says, because of the process of adultification of children. “[They] are being asked to take on so many more burdens of the world at such a young age. So yes, they’re coming to college more likely to have mental health challenges, but more importantly, they’re more likely to come with a tremendous sense of financial burden. That’s causing a lot of the other things.”

Schools can respond by increasing their counseling services and looking at ways to help meet basic needs. When these needs are met, students experience less stress.

Students are more diverse 

Today’s student body is more diverse than ever. Each incoming class includes a mix of people of varying ages, gender affiliation, ethnicity, socio-economic status, and learning differences. Goldrick-Rab insists, “It’s time to update people’s skills. We don’t do a lot of professional development in higher ed. [Institutions have] to help [instructors] think about updating their teaching to reflect the needs of their new students. People are teaching the same way, year after year after year. And there is more than one teaching technique. [They should be] asking, ‘Do I have enough tools in my toolkit to reach the students that I have to teach? Or do I need to learn some new things once in a while?’”

For example, she suggests: 

“Help them to teach students who may walk in the door without everything in place. Help them know what to do if they have a student who doesn’t have enough to eat. I don’t mean tell them you have a food pantry. I mean show them a website where all those resources are and how to point their students toward it. Take them to the food pantry, once, so they can lay eyes on it. And do the same thing with the staff at all levels, because every touch point that a staff member of faculty member has with a student could keep them in, or cause them to leave. It’s an all-hands-on-deck moment when an institution realizes that the students aren’t the people they thought they were.

About the author:

Kimberly Yavorski is a freelance writer who loves finding answers to obscure questions. She has always been a reader and believes that there is always something new to discover and learn, if we only take the time to look. She believes that we all can and should be part of the solution by contributing in whatever way we can. Her writing covers topics such as parenting, education, history, science, social issues and travel.


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