Old School: College's Most Important Trend is the Rise of the Adult Student

The media's "typical" college student lives on a campus at a four-year institution. But that describes no more than a sixth of the total college population. In fact, there are more college attendees over the age of 30 than such "typical" students. The most significant shift in higher education is the massive growth in the adult-student population.

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The quintessential American college student leaves home at 18 to live on a college campus for four years. We've historically defined "nontraditional" students as those over the age of twenty-four, those enrolled part time, and those who are financially independent. But today, the "typical" student is the exception.

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There are currently 17.6 million undergraduates enrolled in American higher education. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that just fifteen percent of them attend four-year colleges and live on campus. Forty-three percent of them attend two-year institutions. Thirty-seven percent of undergraduates are enrolled part-time and thirty-two percent work full-time. Of those students enrolled in four-year institutions, just thirty-six percent actually graduate in four years.

The most significant shift is probably the massive growth in the adult student population in higher education. Thirty-eight percent of those enrolled in higher education are over the age of 25 and one-fourth are over the age of 30. The share of all students who are over age 25 is projected to increase another twenty-three percent by 2019.

The demands for degrees reflect this changed population. Slightly over half of today's students are seeking a "subbacalaureate" credential (i.e. a certificate, credential, or associate's degree). In 2008-09, postsecondary institutions conferred 806,000 certificates and 787,000 associate's degrees, or a total of about 1.59 million, as compared to 1.6 million bachelor's degrees. In 2008, more than half a million students were enrolled in a health sciences certificate program, making it the largest certificate program area. Another 173,000 students sought a certificate in manufacturing, construction, repair, and transportation. While public discourse often focuses on four-year degrees, these other credentials matter, a lot.

hess2college.pngThere are plenty of good jobs that don't require a four-year degree. After all, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that two-thirds of the labor force has less than a four-year degree, including nearly half of those in professional occupations and one-third of those in management roles. It pays for workers to earn these credentials; according to the BLS, that workers with an associate's degree earned $141 more per week, on average, than those whose highest degree is a high school diploma. 

But subbacalaureate programs continue to be regarded as marginal in the press and the higher education mainstream. Universities turn their nose up at them. Policies and norms remain oriented towards "traditional" students. Rankings, awards, and honors go to institutions with great sports teams, prize-winning researchers, or elite student bodies--never to those that are helping nontraditional students master new skills and so that they can reenter the workforce, get promoted, or change careers.

Even nonselective "access" institutions strive to imitate more richly funded research universities, catering to "traditional" students, as best they can. They aspire to limit the time that faculty spend teaching so as to block out time for "research," and make little effort to police the caliber of syllabi, instruction, or assessment. They do little or nothing to ensure that the best teachers are teaching the most important classes. It's the rare community college that has even attempted to figure out who its best teachers are. Indeed, both community colleges and teaching-oriented four-years aspire to hire Ph.D. instructors whenever possible, despite the fact that the doctorate is a research degree which says little about instructional ability.

Community colleges adhere to a semester system that works swell for 19-year-olds used to the rhythms of high school, but that's hugely frustrating for workers whose schedule may not fit the academic calendar (or unemployed workers trying to get retrained in a hurry).

Go-to resources, such as the U.S. News rankings, focus on four-year institutions and traditional measures of prestige like acceptance rates and graduation rates--while offering nothing for those trying to choose among a stew of certification programs.

Intriguingly, there are some colleges--especially for-profits--that have made greater efforts to fundamentally refashion their programs around the needs of adult students. What does that entail?

-- Ensuring that new courses are starting continuously, not just in September and January.

-- Hiring practicing professionals to teach, when appropriate.

-- Investing in high-quality syllabi and assessments, and ensuring that faculty are prepared and willing to use them.

Absent high-quality retraining, it's easy for workers in dying industries to get stuck, their skills to atrophy, and their networks and work habits to erode. This shrinks the supply of skilled workers, discouraging employers and perhaps leading them to put off expansion or to look overseas. Doing a better job of providing accessible, high-quality training, and helping students identify those programs, may not garner the headlines of a new research lab or football stadium, but it's a whole lot more likely to make a difference for workers and communities across the land.