Despite all the concerns about higher education today, sometimes I look out at the sea of faces in my classes and wonder if these students really are all that different from those of my own generation. Students of previous generations and students today seem to have many of the same concerns and anxieties, from managing academic work to paying for college and its associated costs.
That’s a question we no longer have to wonder about, because The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s 2012-13 Almanac, its “annual compendium of college and university data,” provides plenty of information about today’s college students. From this comprehensive compendium of information on almost all aspects of American higher education, we can draw some conclusions about both who today’s students are and what they really need to get them through to graduation:
Age: For all the changes to the student body demographic with the increased number of older and non-traditional students entering degree programs, the majority of students still come from the traditional 15-24 age bracket, with 81% of students at 4-year colleges and 73% at two-year colleges falling within that category. The largest growth in the number of older and non-traditional students is among part-time students.
From this information, it seems that we would do well by our students if we expanded options for part-time learning, as that is the sector of the student population with the largest amount of growth. Also, part-time programs should incorporate great flexibility in schedules and make sure that all courses are available in part-time as well as full-time programs, and are available on all campuses, because older, non-traditional students often have family and other commitments to work around. The expansion of online programs would also benefit this demographic.
Typical Freshman: Even in our diverse society, the largest number of college freshman at 4-year colleges are white, not the first in their families to attend college, and-contrary to popular belief about the so-called “liberalism” of college students, are more politically “middle of the road.” Surprisingly, though, over 40% of today’s freshmen plan on going beyond the bachelor’s degree to earn a master’s degree.
This data clearly indicates that we are not doing enough to bridge the achievement gap between non-Hispanic white students and their black and Hispanic peers. As Education Week pointed out last week, “special analyses by the National Center for Education Statistics in 2009 and 2011 showed that black and Hispanic students trailed their white peers by an average of more than 20 test-score points on the NAEP math and reading assessments at 4th and 8th grades, a difference of about two grade levels.” The college-level achievement gap clearly starts in the earlier grades and is a causal factor in the lower rates of college completion among black and Hispanic students. We need to prepare all of our students for college, make sure they get the academic and financial support they need, so that we can raise college completion rates and close the achievement gap.
Degree Completion: The majority of students who complete a 4-year degree do so at public universities, while for-profit institutions produce the smallest number of college graduates.
This information suggests we need to do a lot better at funding our public institutions, which are apparently the schools of choice for the majority of students. Despite the higher graduation rates of public universities over private and for-profit schools, our public institutions are currently experiencing severe budget cuts. This is true even though they seem to be fulfilling a large part of our national mission of increasing the number of students who complete college degrees.
Reasons for Attending College: Despite the current emphasis on ensuring that colleges provide the kind of training that will help students secure employment after they graduate, the data indicates that today’s incoming college students attend college for many different reasons. It is almost as important to students that they “learn more about things of interest” as they want to get “get a better job.” For example, the results of the survey in which students were asked to evaluate by level of importance their reasons for enrolling in college revealed that 77.6% wanted to “train for a specific career,” 72.4% also said that they wanted to “gain a general education and appreciation of ideas”
I think this data should be employed as a cautionary caveat to education reformers who remain committed to only funding more job training and more emphasis on career development in higher education. Students seem to value getting a solid general education on an almost equal level with their professional goals. Presumably this includes fulfilling the general education requirements, including those in the liberal arts that so many are critical of these days. We need to stop and think before we decide to cut liberal arts and general education requirements and reduce the number of and funding for elective courses.
Finally, the data contradicts some of our current fears about declining education in general, suggesting we have far less to worry about than we thought. For example, the study found that “almost half of the young people who completed high school are enrolled in an institution of higher education, compared with roughly a third three decades ago. Substantial gains in enrollment were seen among blacks and Hispanics as well as whites.”
This is really good news, which we could use in the flood of negative press our K-12 and higher education system garners in the press these days.