Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Postsecondary Success

September 6, 2016

Getting Real About Today’s College Students

By Dan Greenstein

It’s back-to-school time again, the season where we are surrounded by images of grassy quads and ivy-covered buildings, ads promising solutions to cramped dorm rooms, and the inevitable stories about the angst of college costs. And while all of this reflects time-honored traditions and rituals, it also paints an incomplete picture of today’s college students and what they need to be successful. This matters because we need more students than ever to make it into and through college to fuel our economy and maintain social mobility.

What are some of the most common misconceptions about today’s college students? Here are just a few:

The typical college student is 18-24 years old and enrolls right out of high school. In fact, 40 percent of today’s college students are 25 or older. And many of them don’t go directly to college from high school, making it really important for colleges and universities to provide academic supports to help them brush up in areas where they might be weaker and technology-enabled advising that charts a steady and sure path to a credential.

The typical college student is focusing full-time on their studies. The reality is that nearly two-thirds of all students are working while enrolled, a quarter of them full-time. And nearly 30 percent of students have children. As a result, our institutions need to gear their offerings toward students who are juggling work, home, and studies, leveraging and crediting their prior learning and knowledge, and providing emergency aid programs to help with unplanned expenses like a car repair or a medical bill.

The typical college student lives in a dorm on campus. Yes, 40 percent of today’s college students do live on campus, but that means 60 percent do not. Commuter students need access to programs and services before 9am and after 5pm, as well as online and blended courses that enable them to learn anytime, anywhere.

It is also worth noting that 40 percent of today’s college students are students of color, more than 30 percent are the first in their family to attempt college, and 30 percent have a family income of $20,000 or less. Why does this matter? It matters because these students have historically faced higher hurdles getting to and through college, and we need many more of these students – as many as 11 million more – to access and achieve credentials in order to keep our economy moving.

Fortunately, there is growing focus on today’s college students. Lumina Foundation has raised their profile through its Today’s Student initiative, and Washington Monthly is just out with its first-ever rankings of best colleges for adult students. These are promising developments. But there is much more to be done.

Next year when we reach back-to-school season, I will once again look forward to the annual parade of images of coeds with backpacks and advice on the latest dorm living hacks. But I also hope that we will see a few more pictures and stories of today’s college students, because it matters to our future.

This was originally published on Impatient Optimists.

Dan Greenstein is the director of Postsecondary Success at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.