“No matter where you started, finish here.” We didn’t catch the name of the university advertising itself on the Chicago interstate billboard, but its slogan is illustrative of how some institutes of higher education are reaching out to a new generation of college students who do not fit the traditional profile.
Conventional wisdom portrays the traditional college student as someone 18-22 years-old who entered college right out of high school, is supported by his or her parents, lives in a dorm, and departs with a degree after four years. But that’s old school. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, only 27% of undergraduates fit that profile.
Today, non-traditional is the new norm. They represent the fastest-growing segment of the higher education market. About half of today's students are financially independent and are enrolled part-time; 38% work full time; and 27% have dependents of their own, according to the NCES. Almost half attend two-year community colleges rather than four-year schools.
Education, along with hard work, has been among the factors to which nearly all millionaire households attribute their success. More than 90% have a college degree. In contrast, 66% of households with a net worth between $500,000 and $1MM, not including primary residence, have a college degree.
The economic downturn has underscored the importance of a good education. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2009 (the most recent figures available), unemployment for college graduates with a bachelors degree was 5.2%. For high school graduates without a college diploma it was 9.7% while for those who finished college without a degree it was 8.6%. For those without a high school education it was a staggering 14.6%.
Between rapidly changing technology and greater job instability, it has become increasingly important for adults to continue learning throughout their career. Thus, people in their 30s and 40s are, like Rodney Dangerfield in his classic comedy, going “Back to School” to complete their degree, expand their job skills, or to change their careers.
Colleges have become more sensitive to the needs of the non-traditional student, who face seven risk factors that negatively impact persistence and completing their degree, according to Aurora D’Amico, NCES Postsecondary, Adult, & Career Education Division. They include: delaying enrollment by a year or more; attending school part time and being financially independent (both of which could impact eligibility for financial aid); having children; being a single parent; working full-time while enrolled; and being a high school drop out or GED recipient.
For-profit universities have carved out a successful niche catering to this under-served market. The largest is the University of Phoenix, which serves more than 435,000 students at 200 locations across the country and through online programs. Ideally, these institutions offer adults the opportunity to earn a degree while meeting their responsibilities at work and at home. But they have generated controversy. Many charge that they provide a substandard education that turns out unprepared students saddled with unwieldy student loans.
Accordingly, traditional four-year and two-year colleges are responding by offering non-traditional students such amenities as on-campus child care, extended office hours, evening and weekend classes, and online curricula to encourage distance learning.