Changing Student Faces Prompt New Strategies for Graduation

By Andrew Smalley

One of the biggest challenges facing postsecondary institutions is a rapidly changing student body. At the 15th annual Legislative Institute on Higher Education held in Denver, the topic of increased student diversity was an important focus for legislators and staff. 

Danette Howard, senior vice president and chief strategy officer for the Lumina Foundation, provided a keynote address focusing on the changing demographics of today’s students in higher education.

Howard highlighted several significant and recent changes to student demographics. Today, nearly 38 percent of students are older than 25 and 26 percent of students are raising children while in school. Almost half of all students are financially independent and 58 percent of students work while enrolled in college. Moreover, the student body population is becoming increasingly racially diverse. Enrollment of Hispanic students has tripled since the mid-1990s and black student enrollment has increased by 72 percent.

These demographic shifts illustrate the increasingly inaccurate myth that college students are predominantly recent high school graduates who have access to parental support while in college. The policy ramifications for both postsecondary institutions and concerned legislators are a key component of efforts to graduate. The main implication is that financial obstacles, as well as work or family obligations, will make getting a degree increasingly difficult for many students.

The challenges today’s students face also help explain a recent paradox in higher education. “Enrollment is going up, but we don’t see students attaining credentials at the same rate,” Howard said.

Many programs at the state level often fail to fully consider the unique challenges of older students, many of whom are returning to a post-secondary institution for a second attempt at a degree or certificate.

“There were not that many state programs that extended affordability options to students that were working adults,” Howard explained. “Need-based financial aid and promise programs often did not fully consider the needs of these students.”

As growing numbers of students work part-time or full-time jobs while in school, institutions and lawmakers must adapt programs and provide support to counter the evidence that students who work more than 20 hours a week are less likely to complete their degree or certificate program.

Amy Ellen Duke-Benfield, senior policy analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy’s Center for Postsecondary and Economic Success, noted that financial insecurity has serious consequences for students. “The majority of reasons that students drop out of a program are financially related,” she said. “How are students expected to do full time coursework while also working at or near full time?”

Duke-Benfield urged state lawmakers to consider more wide-reaching welfare approaches to address the 40 percent of students who are food insecure and the up-to 13 percent of students who are homeless. She encouraged states to develop assistance programs to help some students receive federal benefits, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). “Students don't know that they are eligible for these benefits and there is often misinformation about eligibility,” she said. “Getting a student on SNAP is no different than getting a student a FAFSA [Free Application for Federal Student Aid]. We don’t want students to be stuck in a cycle of poverty.”

The obstacles of poverty and changing student demographics are significant for institutions as well. “We have to find ways to educate people that we previously did not expect to see on our campuses,” said Joe Garcia, president of the Colorado Community College System and former executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education. “That means we need to have extra supports on campus.”

Those extra support programs and a deep institutional awareness of the changing student demographics of higher education will be crucial to increasing attainment, meeting state and national goals and ensuring proper workforce development for the future. “We are preparing today's students, not just for the jobs of today,” Howard said, "but for jobs that we can't even imagine yet.”