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Shifting Policy to Support the “Typical” College Student

A couple of weeks ago, the New York Times’ Education Life section published a series of articles dedicated solely to incoming college freshmen. With advice on how to navigate the dining hall, when to move into one’s dorm, and how to manage helicopter parents, the articles imagined the typical college student as an 18-year-old who was entering a four year institution straight from high school, living on campus, and whose primary concerns centered just as much on making friends as they did on identifying a viable career path.

These articles in the New York Times are filled with useful advice and insights (and probably well-matched to the publication’s readership), but their conceptualization of the typical college student is hardly representative of the contemporary degree-seeker. As numerous articles and analyses have shown, only about 30% of college students are full-time, residential, are under the age of 24, and are in college for the first time.  The other 70% fit into the category of “nontraditional” college students (or what the Lumina foundation calls “21st century students”): they are over the age of 24, commute to campus, work part-time or full-time, are financially independent, or have children.  Some enter college with only a GED, while others are reentry students with an assemblage of credits from various institutions. Many of these students are low-income, the first in their families to attend college, or come from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups.

While making college affordable for students of all backgrounds has emerged as an important policy issue (especially in the upcoming election), corresponding conversations about quality and completion have only begun to reimagine the “typical” college students as nontraditional, and only sometimes address the particular situational challenges that these students must often overcome. For example, President Obama’s free community college plan, though bold and laudable, has been criticized for its failure to address some of the other barriers to access and completion that community college students—nearly 90% of whom are nontraditional—face in addition to financial constraints. Commentators have argued that a more comprehensive community college plan should provide resources for expanded advising and support services, as well as provisions to help students with work and family demands (such as childcare and increased flexibility of scheduling). Additionally, many financial aid policies remain tailored towards traditional students, and the federal aid system can be difficult to navigate for students who are financially independent, returning to school, or enrolled less than half-time.

Recent proposals, such as Hillary Clinton’s New College Compact, may signal a shift—or at least an expansion—in the way that policymakers conceive of the typical college student and the supports these students need to earn a degree. Notably, Clinton’s proposed expansion of initiatives like TRIO and Gear Up as well as her planned grants to colleges that provide child care, emergency financial aid, and student support programs recognize the situational barriers that nontraditional students face in completing their degrees. Additionally, recent moves by the Education Department to consider the expansion of federal aid to distance learning programs and innovative career pathways like coding boot camps, also included in Clinton’s proposal, may open up opportunities for students who, because of competing life demands and financial constraints, would be better served by flexible learning options.

To make college more affordable, increase quality, and boost rates of completion, policymakers must understand that today’s “typical” college students are from traditional and engage with post-secondary education and career preparation in ways that differ markedly from the New York Times’ imagined residential, 18-year-old freshmen.

Comments on: Shifting Policy to Support the “Typical” College Student

  1. Thank you for reminding us that the typical college student is not the 18-24 year old first-time, full-time student. Our policies should change to better meet the new collegiate reality. One clarification, distance learning students already receive financial aid if they attend colleges that already offer federal aid. Clinton, Rubio (aint’ that a pair?), and others want to expand the ability to grant federal aid to non-traditional providers who cannot currently do so. Russ Poulin, WCET

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