Adult Students Are the New Normal



America’s image of college students as 18-year-olds ambling through leafy quads or attending weekend football games is woefully out of date. Today, 73 percent of students could be considered “nontraditional,” i.e. having characteristics not typically associated with participation in college, including:

  • entry to college delayed by at least one year following high school,
  • having dependents,
  • being a single parent,
  • being employed full time,
  • being financially independent,
  • attending part-time, or
  • not having a high school diploma.

Robert Hansen, CEO of the University Professional and Continuing Education Association, told Inside Higher Ed last year: “At the institutional level, faculty are by and large focused mostly on first-time, full-time students. Faculty generally tend to be products of that type of education, so they bring that sensibility to their teaching. For universities, the federal government, even those outside of higher education, the conversation is always about just 25 percent of the student population.”

Now, the Chronicle of Higher Education has released a new report focused on such students, entitled “The Adult Student: The Population Colleges — and the Nation — Can’t Afford to Ignore.” The report’s goal is to guide institutions to better serve adult students, especially the 80 million American adults who have some college but no degree. (Data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reveal that just one-third of non-first-time students—students who re-enroll in college after at least a year away from higher education—earn a degree after eight years.)

The author of the new report is Goldie Blumenstyk, a reporter and an editor for the Chronicle and the author of American Higher Education in Crisis? What Everyone Needs to Know.

The Chronicle’s website explains the importance of acknowledging and understanding the special needs of adult students: “America’s adult students have long been an afterthought in higher education. But demographic changes and economic pressures will soon require institutions to expand their horizons in order to survive or thrive.”

The report focuses on three key areas:

  • Barriers that prevent adult students from enrolling or succeeding in college
  • Strategies to develop programs for and attract adult students
  • How to work with states, industries, and other partners to support adult students

It’s unsurprising that higher education, an industry that is often reluctant to change, needs guidance to deal with students’ new demands. Non-traditional students need flexible and efficient education. The old model doesn’t work anymore. Moving courses online, giving students credit for prior learning, and incorporating competency-based models can be part of the solution.

The full report is available for purchase from the Chronicle store.

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