Peter McPherson is president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities and president emeritus of Michigan State University.
Think of the typical college student. For many, the thought conjures a tableau of young adults strolling a leafy quad. They bask in the freedom of student life as they ease their way into adulthood. The real world awaits them.
Think again. While this picture may have been broadly representative of college students in generations past, it’s badly outdated for today’s students. College students are now more likely to work, have family commitments and come from low-income backgrounds than in earlier generations.
As the profile of college students continues to evolve, many institutions are adjusting and must continue to do so. Federal and state higher education policy must also change to meet these students’ unique needs and help them succeed. Unfortunately, the conventional wisdom about so-called traditional college students has proven stubbornly persistent.
Start with the students themselves. About half of today’s students fit into the age cohort that is part of the antiquated framework of traditional college students — those between ages 17 and 21. More than a quarter of students are between 22 and 29 while another 20 percent are 30 or older.
Today’s students juggle more responsibilities, too. Some 70 percent of students work while attending college, with a quarter of students in higher education handling a full course load while holding down full-time work. More than a quarter of college students have children, while an untold number are caregivers for other loved ones such as ill parents or elderly grandparents. Students are also more mobile than ever. More than half of bachelor’s degree recipients attend more than one institution before graduating.
Yet the federal graduation rate remains a relic of the past, only reporting on the success of students who started college as full-time students and never transferred. Astonishingly, it counts full-time transfer students as dropouts and entirely omits the 37 percent of students who attend school part-time.
These staggering gaps in the data often leave policymakers and prospective students with a mistaken understanding of student performance at individual schools. Fortunately, a bipartisan group of lawmakers serving on the House and Senate education committees introduced the College Transparency Act last month to eliminate these flaws in the data. Congress should pass it to ensure the federal graduation rate reflects students of the 21st century.
Meanwhile, the share of students receiving Pell Grants, the federal financial aid program aimed at making college affordable for low-income students, has climbed from 25 percent a decade ago to 33 percent today. Congress and President Trump recently took an important step forward by enacting legislation that restores year-round Pell Grants, helping more students graduate and join the workforce earlier. But lawmakers should address the fact that the program’s mandatory inflation adjustment expires at the end of the year. Just as retirees depend on cost-of-living adjustments to Social Security benefits, students rely on Pell Grants to keep up with inflation in the broader economy.
Many public universities, for their part, are pioneering approaches that rethink financial aid. Completion grants, for example, help prevent low-income students nearing graduation from dropping out because of financial distress. The grants offer a few-hundred dollars to seniors whose resources — such as college savings and traditional financial aid — have been exhausted. At some institutions, the grants have raised recipients’ graduation rates by as much as 130 percent compared with similar students who didn’t receive grants.
Institutions must also adapt to better serve the one-third of undergraduates who are first-generation college students. Without the ability to draw on the experience of family members who previously attended college, these students have a more difficult time navigating common challenges such as completing financial-aid paperwork, deciding what to study and balancing other life commitments. Institutions must innovate to provide additional support to help these students thrive.
Proactive advising is one support that uses interactive degree planning to help students set a path to a degree that maximizes their chances of graduating in the most efficient way. The approach also enables advisers to gauge student progress in real time, allowing them to help struggling students at critical junctures in their coursework. Moreover, proactive advising allows universities to track aggregated student performance in past courses to uncover trends in student success or failure. By putting these data sets to work, institutions can identify key courses that predict future success.
The popular conception of college students is a vestige of a bygone era. And as more Americans pursue a college education and the opportunities it confers, students will only diverge further from what we consider “traditional.” That’s an unqualified good; it’s also why public universities are working diligently to adapt and meet their needs. It’s past time our federal higher education policy reflected those needs as well.