The changing face of U.S. higher education
How new students are coping

Although Thien Chau and Danyelle Parrish were born worlds apart—Chau in Vietnam and Parrish just outside of New Orleans—they have arrived at similar places in their education. Both students don’t fit traditional categories of college-goers, and demonstrate how today’s colleges and universities need to adapt to fit the needs of learners with various backgrounds and needs.

Diversity is now a fact of life in U.S. postsecondary education. There are more students of color, first-generation students, full-time workers, students from low-income backgrounds and those who must balance studies with parenting.

In this changing environment, educators, policymakers and politicians should back programs that can accommodate all backgrounds. The benefit of this approach is clear. By 2025, the U.S. workforce will require 11 million more credentialed workers than are currently graduating from colleges and universities.

Today’s students face numerous challenges that can affect their academic performance and completion rates: 50 percent of students who start postsecondary studies leave before earning a degree or certificate.

Navigating a maze
The academic world can be a maze for students with no parents or siblings to provide guidance from past experience. Chau, 22, is the first in his family to pursue postsecondary studies. Students like Chau face a range of challenges that may not be obvious to students who grew up knowing that college was a given. “I felt like I was left on my own a lot to figure things out,” said Chau, who recently graduated from the University of Nebraska, where he combined political science with environmental studies.

Thirty-nine percent of all college students receive financial aid in the form of Pell grants. One of the biggest problems for students like Chau is navigating the financial aid system. “It was all new to me,” said Chau, whose father works at a packaging plant for a bakery while his mother takes care of the family.

Chau successful completed his undergraduate program and is now enrolled in law school at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Reaching out to all available resources is what helped him succeed, and mentors who were affiliated with his scholarship program made sure he stayed on track.

Club memberships and internships also helped Chau connect with other students who could offer guidance. “I felt a little left out at first,” he said. “After freshman year, I realized it would be beneficial for me to take part in student government and take part in unpaid internships.” The University of Nebraska also provides a web page with resources for first-generation students.

Nursing a dream
A significant percentage of students return to school years later to seek a credential or degree. And nationwide, an estimated 28 percent of full-time students at four-year degree programs have children.

Danyelle Parrish, a Garyville, La., native, was in her thirties when she enrolled in a nursing program at River Parishes Community College. As a more mature student, Parrish, 36, had to balance her studies with parenting her three children. “Mom doesn’t just come home and have the rest of the day off,” she said. “You have homework and you have to make sure the kids do their homework. And you still have to wash clothes and keep the house clean.”

Parrish is enrolled in a licensed practical nurse program and plans to eventually complete the coursework necessary to receive her bachelor’s in nursing. That achievement would help her fulfill her lifelong ambition of working in a hospital—a dream that was put on hold when she became pregnant with her first child while still in high school. “Life never allowed me to go back to school” in her twenties, Parrish said.

Online options
Parrish said she could not have considered returning to academia without the support from both her family and school. She credits her college’s flexible approach to education, which she said is essential for students with competing demands on their time.

River Parishes offers numerous online resources that are always accessible, and professors hold scheduled tutorial sessions online. That resource allows Parrish to spend more time with her children. She estimated that about half of her classmates are also parents. “A lot of people go there because there is flexible scheduling.”

For first-generation student Chau, mentoring and student activities helped him get through the unfamiliar college environment. For full-time student and full-time mom Parrish, it’s been flexible class scheduling, online resources and a supportive family environment.

Efforts aimed at increasing access to affordable education are essential to ensuring that the country’s workforce needs are met and that no talent goes untapped.

For more information about diversity on America’s college campuses, read more here.