Colleges Are Failing Their Biggest Group of Students

A large number of Americans enrolled in a degree program are non-traditional—students who are older, financially independent, have children, or have full or part-time jobs—and they're not getting the support they need.

Eric Risberg/AP Photo

In 2012, I graduated from college seven years late. At times, it was painful to watch my peers move away and on to jobs that were unavailable to me as a dropout. Friends I began my undergraduate education with had already finished master’s programs and were embarking on their careers while I was still chipping away at core requirements.

But my path, from flunking out of college sophomore year to hopping through various part-time programs, to finally completing in a program geared toward working adults, isn’t unusual at all. In fact, there is a “new majority,” in American universities today. As many as 73 percent of U.S. students enrolled in a degree program today are described as what we used to call “non-traditional” students. These are not bright-eyed coeds fresh from high school but rather adults, who are financially independent, working to support themselves, and often a child or relative. These students play many roles, some of which inevitably take precedence over their education, which is why most of them attend school part-time.
Unfortunately, part-time attendees are set up for failure. Most universities, even community colleges, which are meant to serve just these kinds of students, schedule few classes in the evenings. Administrative offices aren’t open outside of business hours. Online classes, widely touted to adult learners as practical and convenient, are hard to commit to; hybrid programs worked better for me.  Then there’s the cost: Various kinds of aid exist to help poor students pay tuition but most of it’s not available to part-timers. Federal programs like the Pell Grant cover only a very small portion of the total cost of tuition at most schools, and are prorated each term.  The neediest undergraduates tend to receive most of their aid directly from universities, and this aid is usually only available to full time students. “Full time students are more likely to be successful,” said Lisa Shaheen, Director of Financial Aid at the New School. “There has always been a push to incentivize full time.”
But it’s impossible to say how well part-time students would do if offered similar support at similar institutionsAs it is, many part-time students end up going through completely virtual, for-profit institutions2012 Senate report tracked students enrolled in these schools, and found that of the 1.1 million who enrolled in the 2008-09 academic year, more than half had withdrawn by 2010, and 22% had defaulted on their federal loans within three years.
Instead of helping part-time students earn their degrees, there’s a movement to make full-time enrollment even more rigorous. Some educators and policy organizations, have lobbied governors and even congress to encourage the “Full Time is 15,” initiative where full-time enrollment requires 15 credits per semester instead of 12. The move aims to help students graduate in four years and stem dropout, which occurs increasingly as students take longer to graduate. Now, almost a dozen states have programs that incentivize 15-credit terms with aid increases, even further shutting out working students from the meager aid that is available.

David Scobey, Dean of New School for Public Engagement, says, “the program is not intended to be punitive, but that is the effectFinancial aid is set up to favor full-time students, and very few institutions have good services for adult studentsThere’s a whole host of reasons why completion rates are lower, and this might be the wrong solutionIt’s true that students who are going to school part time have proportionally less success in completing degreesThat’s partly because we have done such a terrible job in higher education of understanding the majority of undergraduates who have to work, more than half of whom are enrolled part time.”

Shaheen says: “It’s defeating the purpose if they have to work in order to pay their tuition. But they work, so they can’t get to their classes. It creates a catch-22.”
The New School for Public Engagement is one of few undergraduate programs dedicated to non-traditional students, where I attended for two years and graduated fromIt offers a paid fellowship for students to work on community-buildingCommunity colleges tend to operate like bus stops, with a wide swath of different kinds of students popping in one or two evenings a weekCreating a learning and social environment that working students feel attached to, where they know their peers and professors, becomes a natural incentive to return one semester after anotherSeveral schools are also pushing programs to make school more conducive to working adults—from things as simple as offering consistent courses at consistent times, so students can plan their next term, to adding prior learning assessment programs, where, for of a fraction of normal tuition cost, a student can create a portfolio displaying academic study related to their previous professional experience.
Requiring 15 credits a semester assumes that shooting through the college system full speed is qualitatively better for students. The media is full of reports of young ambitious grads that are continuously under-employed or working at the wrong job. While there aren’t much data available about long-term success and satisfaction rates among non-traditional college grads, I’m glad to have had several years to figure out my passions, explore how to satisfy them in a job, and prepare for that job in a formal course of study.  I changed directions dozens of times since I started college at 18 and I make decisions more intentionally at 28 than I did 10 years ago. Scobey says that in his experience, the one and only factor that absolutely indicates completion, is continuous enrollment—just people coming back for one more semester, in at least two more classes. Trying to push these folks into the traditional student model only locks them out of the system.

Earlier this year, Obama announced a plan to increase the portion of American students earning college degrees by 2020. The US figure for 25-to-34-year-old college grads has been slipping, as has its ranking among other nations; we’re now 16th, down from 12th in 2011. If we want to increase the number of college grads, and college grads with in-demand skills, we should focus on better supporting the biggest and fastest growing group of students—the new majority.