The Changing Face of the College Student

Campus of St. Olaf College, at Northfield, Minnesota, United States. (Credit: Daniel Edwins)

Campus of St. Olaf College, at Northfield, Minnesota, United States. (Credit: Daniel Edwins)

Not long ago the typical college student was under age 25, single, and without children. The college years meant dorm living, new freedoms, and transitioning to life without the constant presence of parents. Getting a degree was possible in four years because students focused mainly on their coursework. Although many held part-time jobs and participated in social events, these took second place to getting a degree.

Today’s college student is more than likely to be over age 25, hold down a job, and have a family. These nontraditional students, whose ranks include stay-at-home moms, military personnel, retirees, and veterans, have different needs than the conventional college student, and their growing influence is changing how many colleges operate.

Big Changes on Campus

Because the nontraditional student has different responsibilities and priorities than students of previous generations, colleges and universities have made changes to accommodate them. A prime example is flexible scheduling, a concept that allows students to take classes during the day, at night, and on weekends.

Because of their many obligations, nontraditional students often opt for online classes, and colleges have responded by increasing their online offerings. Another feature that many campuses have added is childcare, making it more convenient for students with children to attend classes.

Reentry Students

Many nontraditional students began their college education after high school but had to leave school for various reasons such as lack of finances or family obligations. Now they are returning to complete their education and earn their degrees. These reentry students comprise one of the fastest growing segments of students.

In recognition of the number of reentry students, most institutions offer special services designed for their specific needs. The University of California Berkeley’s Transfer, Re-entry, and Student Parent Center, for example, helps re-entry students with scholarships and supports them through the re-entry student association.

Opportunities for Women

While the traditional college student is likely to view the first year or so of college as an extension of high school, the nontraditional student is often more interested in learning new skills, being part of a community, and getting a good job. Most attend school part time. Of those students over age 35, nearly two-thirds are women. It’s no wonder they’re interested in job skills and placement–women are at greater risk for lower incomes in the second half of their lives.

Many scholarships are available for women of all ages and backgrounds. Organizations such as:

offer scholarships to nontraditional women students.

GI Bill Makes College Affordable for Vets

A nontraditional student may also be a veteran recently returned from Iraq or Afghanistan. Thanks to new provisions in the GI Bill, known as the “Yellow Ribbon” program, many veterans are able to receive tuition subsidies. These subsidies make it possible for veterans to attend private colleges, where the tuition may have been otherwise unaffordable.

Harvard and the American University in Washington, D.C., are two of the institutions participating in the Yellow Ribbon program. In order to qualify, veterans must have served for at least 36 months on active duty or at least 30 continuous days before being discharged because of a service-related injury.

Why Go Back to College?

What prompts a person with obligations at home and at work to take on the added commitment of college? According to Eduventures, Inc., an education-consulting firm, the recession has increased the value of an education. In a 2009 survey, thirty percent of respondents indicated that the recession had either prompted them to think about advancing their education or led them to take action to pursue their education sooner than they had planned.

Most of these students enroll at two-year and private for-profit colleges where they can take advantage of online programs. The ability to login to their classes at any time is a big advantage when juggling work and family obligations. Some colleges and universities even make it possible to complete a program and earn a degree through online coursework, meaning that these students never need to set foot into a classroom.

Is the degree legitimate? Yes, if a student earns a degree through an institution that is accredited, then it’s just as valid as if the student attended traditional classroom courses. Visit the U.S. Department of Education to view a database of accredited postsecondary institutions and programs.

The New College Environment

College isn’t just for young adults anymore. Step onto any campus and you’ll likely see students of all ages and from every ethnic and economic background. In class, a recent high school graduate may rub elbows with a grandmother, discuss business with a retired executive, or chat with an Iraq veteran. What has always been a rewarding experience is now made even richer by the mingling of an increasingly diverse student population.

What do you think is the main reason behind why people start college late or eventually go back? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!

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