Who are today’s college students?

The answer surprises most people who attended four year universities, according to Jamie Merisotis, President and CEO of Lumina Foundation. Addressing audiences, like the one he spoke to Friday at The Aspen Ideas Festival, co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, he frequently poses this question: “What percentage of students in American higher education today graduated from high school and enrolled in college within a year to attend a four year institution and live on campus?”

Most people guess “between forty and sixty percent,” he said, whereas “the correct answer is five percent.” There is, he argued, “a real disconnect in our understanding of who today’s students are. The influencers––the policy makers, the business leaders, the media––have a very skewed view of who today’s students are.”

Clay Shirky has written persuasively on the same subject.

For starters, take this anecdote:

Compare the recent threatened closings of Sweet Briar versus the City College of San Francisco. Sweet Briar has an enrollment of 530 and offers courses in horseback riding; CCSF has an enrollment of 85,000 and offers courses in motorcycle repair. The Sweet Briar kids will be fine no matter what happens to their school, while the CCSF kids are mostly not kids and mostly won’t be fine, if the local community college closes. Where Sweet Briar is threatened by declining interest from prospective students, CCSF struggles to meet demand; 10,000 students can’t get into the courses they need, a number equivalent to 75 years worth of admitted students at Sweet Briar. Yet it was Sweet Briar that occasioned national headlines. The threat to CCSF was treated as a local problem.

Here’s his summary of larger trends:

Of the twenty million or so students in the US, only about one in ten lives on a campus. The remaining eighteen million—the ones who don’t have the grades for Swarthmore, or tens of thousands of dollars in free cash flow, or four years free of adult responsibility—are relying on education after high school not as a voyage of self-discovery but as a way to acquire training and a certificate of hireability.

Though the landscape of higher education in the U.S., spread across forty-six hundred institutions, hosts considerable variation, a few commonalities emerge: the bulk of students today are in their mid-20s or older, enrolled at a community or commuter school, and working towards a degree they will take too long to complete. One in three won’t complete, ever. Of the rest, two in three will leave in debt. The median member of this new student majority is just keeping her head above water financially.

The bottom quintile is drowning.

His takeaway:

Our collective obsession with elite students and institutions means public conversations about college are increasingly irrelevant to the lives of many of the actual students. This becomes clear when you look at the list of things that heighten the risk of a student dropping out of a traditional college:

  • The student did not enroll immediately after high school.
  • The student is 25 or older.
  • The student has dependent children or elders.
  • The student is married, or a single parent.
  • The student is enrolled part-time.
  • The student works full-time.

Email conor@theatlantic.com with thoughts on this subject.