What comes to mind when you think of the average college student? If you imagine a 20-something who comes straight from high school to life as a full-time student on a residential campus, you might want to reconsider. Demographic changes in post-high school education have transformed how millions of American students experience college.
In U.S. colleges and universities, the share of part-time students is larger than ever. Most are working, which might explain how an increasing number of students, who are either listed as being financially independent from their parents or who are from the lowest socioeconomic classes, are able to attend school at all.
Looking at all U.S. college students, data show that:
- 64 percent have a job
- 40 percent work full time
- 37 percent are older than 25
- One-quarter have children or dependents
- One-third come from families living in poverty
- 9 percent have reported not having stable housing at some point in the last year
- 36 percent have reported not knowing where they were going to find their next meal at some point
In short, today’s college student is older, holding down a job, and often supporting family members. The old stereotypes are outdated, but higher ed hasn’t adapted. And given how important a post-high school credential is today—almost all living-wage jobs require one—the system has to change, both for these students and their families, and for the country’s economy.
A brief history of the American university system
Most, though not quite all, of the older institutions of higher learning in the U.S. were built to train the clergy.
Harvard University, while technically nondenominational, tended toward training Congregationalists. Yale was specifically targeted to the same denomination and limited itself to teaching theology and languages for decades. Princeton was for Presbyterians, William and Mary was for Episcopalians alongside Columbia, and Rutgers was for Calvinists. The more progressive Brown University was founded by Baptists, but was explicitly open to all. For decades, many American students considered religious denomination the most important factor in selecting a school — even if they weren’t going into the ministry.
It might go without saying that most of the people intended for these schools were fairly well-off young men, though on rare occasions scholarships made it possible for particularly bright children of the lower classes to get an education.
While change was slow in coming, the American university system has done well for itself by being willing to experiment and change. Over time, student demographics also changed, though it took much longer than one might hope. It wasn’t until 1855 that a public university, The University of Iowa, admitted men and women on an equal basis. Racial progress was often slower.
Despite this progress, there remain considerable racial and economic disparities in which Americans seek and hold degrees. Black, Hispanic and Latino, Native American, and Pacific Islander students are underrepresented at universities, though Hispanic students are increasingly well represented in some places. The six-year graduation rates are also unequal, with whites and Asians having a higher graduation rate than other races. These disparities suggest that other racial gaps, such as those pertaining to wealth or employment, won’t be reduced as quickly as some advocates might hope.
Altogether, 52 percent of American adults have a post-high school credential, including a two- or four-year degree, certificate or industry certification.
52 percent would be a failing grade at most schools
We have to do better. Research shows that more than two-thirds of living-wage jobs require a credential beyond high school. And despite what some think, that doesn’t necessarily mean a college degree. High-quality certificates and industry certifications—particularly if they are “stackable” toward degrees—are an excellent pathway toward economic security.
Lumina Foundation is part of the national movement toward a bold goal: ensuring that 60 percent of working-age adults will have a college degree or other post-high school credential by 2025. But we can’t get there without better supports for students, especially those who are the first in their families to attend college, come from low-income families or face other challenges such as food or housing insecurity.
As Danette Howard of Lumina told Big Think:
“We know there are many, many students who have to take a break after high school, who maybe are parents themselves or who have to work full time and so therefore they weren’t able to enroll completely after high school. Students of color are disproportionately represented in those groups, and so one of the indirect consequences of these policies is that they have excluded Black students, African American students, Latino students, and Native American students. So, we think that financial aid policies need to be revised for older students and many students who lead more complex lives. It’s really important to acknowledge that no one person is one single thing…We have to really think about the intersectionality of all aspects of a learner’s identity. The system of post-secondary education has to be redesigned to take into account the very complex and fluid lives that students live.”
The American college experience has fundamentally changed since the days of the Great Society domestic programs of nearly 60 years ago, when we devised many of the systems of financial aid and student support on which college students still rely. Some organizations are leading the charge in helping make the changes that will help those left out by the system get the education they deserve.
DANETTE HOWARD: I don’t think that we want a society that is based upon stratification, where there are these huge, significant differences by income and by educational level. And by the kinds of jobs that people get. We have to do something to address educational inequities by race and ethnicity if we hope to be a country that is fair and just, and where there is really equal opportunity for everyone.
When I was six months old, my mom returned back to school and started working on her bachelor’s degree. It took my mom eight long years to earn her bachelor’s degree. I remember the day she graduated, I was in the third grade, and it was an incredible celebration. The beautiful thing about what happens when you are the first in your family to get a college degree is that it not only changes the trajectory of your life but the trajectory of the life of everyone in your family line who comes after you.
It’s not enough that some of us have those credentials, that some of us are able to live the American dream. Everyone should have the opportunity to determine the path that is best for him or her. If you look back at the very beginning of higher education in the United States, higher education was designed to prepare young white men for the clergy primarily. Over time, we have seen higher education become more diverse, but we still do see some stratification in the higher education system, which is connected to this historical legacy of exclusion.
We have to acknowledge all of these different facets of the post-secondary ecosystem that have to be redesigned and rebuilt to better serve today’s students, to better serve students of color. There are many statewide financial aid policies, for example, that are only geared toward recent high school graduates. And we know that there are many, many students who have to take a break after high school who maybe are parents themselves, or who have to work full time. And so, therefore, they weren’t able to enroll completely after high school. Students of color are disproportionately represented in those groups. And so, one of the indirect consequences of these policies is that they have excluded Black students and African American students, Latino students, and Native American students. So we think that financial aid policies need to be revised for older students and many students who lead more complex lives. It’s really important to acknowledge that no one person is one single thing.
So yes, I am an African American, but I am also a woman. I’m also a parent. We have to really think about the intersectionality of all aspects of a learner’s identity. The system of post-secondary education has to be redesigned to take into account the very complex and fluent lives that students live. We don’t want a society of haves and have nots based upon who’s had the opportunity to pursue and complete a post-secondary credential and who has not.
My mom was able to get a better job. She was earning a better income. We were able to move to a different neighborhood, but I think the most consequential outcome is that I’ve never for a moment in my life thought that that would not be my reality. I’ve always known that I was going to have the opportunity to pursue my dreams and that many of those dreams would begin with my going on to college. It’s important that those of us who have had these opportunities work to make them available for everyone.