The Changing Face of the American Student

Why the average college student may not be who you imagine, and how schools are supporting the next generation of learners.

Despite what we read in news stories and see in movies about American college students, the average student today isn’t pulling up to campus with parents behind the wheel of a car overflowing with boxes. The reality is, today’s students are just as likely to be moms and dads themselves, or full-time and part-time employees, or members of the U.S. armed forces. What they all have in common with today’s first-time “Gen Z” freshman and traditional AP high school students is the decision to pursue a degree on their own terms.

We still share deeply-ingrained cultural images of what constitutes the traditional college student.  What would surprise most is that less than a third of U.S. undergraduates are ‘traditional’ students in the sense that they are enrolled full-time at a four-year residential college. In fact, a recent study from the National Center for Education Statistics found that 62 percent of students work either full or part time and 28 percent have at least one dependent.

THE GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY CENTER ON EDUCATION AND THE WORKFORCE

Students today are redefining their roles. So how is higher education reimagining the pathways for today’s ‘new normal,’ and the rapidly growing number of nontraditional students who are committed to and passionate about earning a degree?

It is a critical question. Access to higher education remains the best pathway to career success directly impacting employment opportunities and wages. A study from the Center on Education and the Workforce found that bachelor’s degree holders earn 31 percent more than workers with an Associate’s degree and 74 percent more than those with just a high school diploma. What’s more, emerging technologies and the changing nature of industries have created a demand for new types of skilled workers. The future actually requires more than a degree. Students now must have the ability to learn and master new skills. This in turn calls for change on the part of higher ed institutions and their willingness to innovate, invest and champion a student they may not be able to fully define.

Bachelor’s degree holders earn 31 percent more than workers with an Associate’s degree and 74 percent more than those with just a high school diploma.

What does that look like? For starters, higher ed programs should be flexible and adaptable, allowing students to study during the hours – or often minutes – that fit their schedules.  Programs also need to provide modular content accessible by mobile applications so students can take classes in bite-size segments that ensure they can stay on top of coursework and deadlines from a mobile device or tablet anytime, anywhere.

Online education is a key component to the solution. Universities like Arizona State University now offer hundreds of different degree programs through their integrated and interactive platform, ASU Online. Expanding from 5,400 students in 2011 to nearly 25,000 today, ASU Online offers courses by the same award-winning faculty who teach at the on-ground campus. As part of ASU EdPlus, a dedicated unit created to advance inclusion, efficiency and innovation, the online program implements innovative technologies students need to be successful paired with committed support through coaches and academic advisors.

“At ASU, we work diligently to lay the right groundwork for each student at a personal and individual level because we know there is no silver bullet to student success,” said Leah Lommel, Chief Operating Officer of ASU Online. “Each learner is unique – what works for one may not work for another. This reality requires a tireless commitment to innovation on the part of higher education. It requires us to create pathways for all who are interested in pursuing a degree – whether they’re already enrolled in our institutions or have dreams of attending.”

Working toward a degree is often described in terms of a journey – the road ahead, the path forward, the right track. However, today’s ‘new normal’ student is approaching education from new standpoint with different requirements and needs. As a result, we must rethink the on-ramp to education - ensuring that education is accessible, inclusive, and creates a pathway for all students who are committed to earning and completing a degree.

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