For Real Higher-Ed Reform, Let’s Rethink the “Typical” College Student

Starting a better higher-ed conversation.
Sept. 23 2013 11:38 AM

Redefining the “Typical” College Student

They’re older, busier, have more responsibilities. Higher-ed reform should reflect their needs.

Redefining the "typical" college student
The typical college student is older, more independent, and has more responsibilities than the late-teen in a dorm room we usually imagine.

Photo by Diego Cervo/Shutterstock

Our nation’s system of over 6,700 colleges and universities is said to be outdated, overpriced, and losing the public’s trust. President Obama appears to agree. His college-affordability plan may have been pushed below the fold by Syria and Miley Cyrus when he introduced it a few weeks back, but his proposal continues to make waves. The plan would dramatically alter the form and extent of federal involvement in an arena where states and semi-autonomous institutions have historically reigned supreme. It’s an audacious proposal designed for complicated times. But it does not address the real higher education crisis as it is experienced by the majority of college students.

Here’s how the Obama administration sees it. College demand is up and the White House wants to see it rise further. Obama previously pledged a 20 percent increase in Americans age 25 to 34 with a college degree by 2020. These reform proposals reflect the administration’s belief that degrees spur economic innovation and train workers for the skilled jobs of the future. The problem is that the price of college has been steadily increasing along with demand. Obama’s challenge in a nutshell: More people want college, we want more people to want college, but the high cost of college interferes with that goal.

On its own terms, Obama’s proposal makes sense ideologically, if not practically. Among the proposals are fairly benign goals, such as a devising a rating system for college quality and experimenting with online learning. The rating system—which would look at the potential earnings of graduates relative to the cost of tuition, for example, or compare outcomes among students from similar demographic backgrounds—is controversial; institutions may fear rankings that pit schools against each other with the authority of the government. Even more controversial are eventual plans to link these ratings to eligibility to participate in federal aid programs. In 2010, 57 percent of all undergraduate students used federal student aid to help pay for college. A college that can’t offer federal aid to students may not long be in business.

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Ratings haven’t worked out all that well at the K–12 level, and there are some good critiques out there of how difficult it will be to pull off the ratings model for colleges and universities. People who study higher education can cry you a river over how difficult it is to objectively measure something as subjective as quality. It is hard to imagine that the federal government will devise standard measures that researchers have struggled to agree upon for years. But the biggest potential problem is that there is little evidence that students make college decisions based on this kind of information. Some students want to attend the most prestigious college they can, while others want to follow friends or go as far away from home as possible.

More importantly, typical college students today are not straight-from-high-school young adults. They are older. They’ve worked or are working. They have families. They care for parents or children. Their lives don’t necessarily accommodate a full-time, four-year enrollment. Their educational choices are often about convenience, geography, and access. They’re not necessarily looking for the information that the Obama administration wants to give them.

Public policy and debates about the higher education crisis focus on an ideal college student that does not reflect reality. Recent high school graduates taking part in the residential college experience represent just 15 percent of all college students. This trend has been clear to researchers for some time. Even traditional-aged students are more likely to be in nontraditional college arrangements than they are a dorm room, as 50 percent of them are enrolled part-time. Older adult students are increasing their share of higher education enrollment: 38 percent of college students in 2011 were 24 or older. Depending on your definition of a “nontraditional” student, they may account for as much as two-thirds of all college students.

Higher education is serving more students who may take longer to graduate, who may need to cobble together credits from several institutions, and who, as a result, use financial aid differently. These are all trends projected to intensify. Many colleges have responded to these demographic changes by trying to attract a dwindling pool of traditional students. This institutional status contest is related to the increasing cost of college, as institutions spend money to attract wealthier students. This competition diverts attention, resources, and policy away from the needs of the new typical college student.

That same new typical college student faces a range of economic and social pressures that make pursing higher education an imperative. Higher-quality jobs require more credentials while jobs in the middle of the ladder are declining. Labor training is being transferred to the public account, by requiring workers to pay for their own skills training through financial aid programs. Workers caught in this squeeze are receiving an ideological message from the White House that they are morally, personally responsible for attaining credentials that the private sector values. At the same time, the conditions of being a nontraditional student limit the available choices for how to attain these credentials, and almost the only means of paying for them is through federal student aid.

Often, the options that are left are the most expensive: The pricier for-profit sector has positioned itself as the flexible, accessible, occupational solution for nontraditional students. Ratings and measures don’t address that reality. What these students need are practical choices. Most of those practical choices sound a lot like jobs—good jobs that pay a living wage. Federal higher education policy could stand a dose of economic policy that focuses more on today’s job conditions. Higher education policy often neglects significant debates—about minimum wage increases, welfare-to-work policies, and declines in public sector hiring, for example—that inform how students make their educational choices.

We are also overlooking a major ideological shift in what federal student aid is meant to subsidize. It was originally intended to provide equal opportunities to attain a college education. Now, federal aid often takes form as public subsidies of the private sector to provide lifelong career training for workers. We deserve a more robust debate on whether that’s what public wants or deserves. In the meantime, what we’ll get is a rating system for students to choose between paying more than they would like and way more than they would like to purchase a credential that is, effectively, a lottery ticket for a job.

Tressie McMillan Cottom is a Slate writer and Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Emory University. Follow her on Twitter.

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