Thursday, September 29, 2011

the rise of the adult student

The Atlantic | The quintessential American college student leaves home at 18 to live on a college campus for four years. We've historically defined "nontraditional" students as those over the age of twenty-four, those enrolled part time, and those who are financially independent. But today, the "typical" student is the exception.

There are currently 17.6 million undergraduates enrolled in American higher education. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that just fifteen percent of them attend four-year colleges and live on campus. Forty-three percent of them attend two-year institutions. Thirty-seven percent of undergraduates are enrolled part-time and thirty-two percent work full-time. Of those students enrolled in four-year institutions, just thirty-six percent actually graduate in four years.

The most significant shift is probably the massive growth in the adult student population in higher education. Thirty-eight percent of those enrolled in higher education are over the age of 25 and one-fourth are over the age of 30. The share of all students who are over age 25 is projected to increase another twenty-three percent by 2019.

The demands for degrees reflect this changed population. Slightly over half of today's students are seeking a "subbacalaureate" credential (i.e. a certificate, credential, or associate's degree). In 2008-09, postsecondary institutions conferred 806,000 certificates and 787,000 associate's degrees, or a total of about 1.59 million, as compared to 1.6 million bachelor's degrees. In 2008, more than half a million students were enrolled in a health sciences certificate program, making it the largest certificate program area. Another 173,000 students sought a certificate in manufacturing, construction, repair, and transportation. While public discourse often focuses on four-year degrees, these other credentials matter, a lot.

There are plenty of good jobs that don't require a four-year degree. After all, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that two-thirds of the labor force has less than a four-year degree, including nearly half of those in professional occupations and one-third of those in management roles. It pays for workers to earn these credentials; according to the BLS, that workers with an associate's degree earned $141 more per week, on average, than those whose highest degree is a high school diploma.

But subbacalaureate programs continue to be regarded as marginal in the press and the higher education mainstream. Universities turn their nose up at them. Policies and norms remain oriented towards "traditional" students. Rankings, awards, and honors go to institutions with great sports teams, prize-winning researchers, or elite student bodies--never to those that are helping nontraditional students master new skills and so that they can reenter the workforce, get promoted, or change careers.


nanakwame said...

Got mine at 54 years old. Made a promise and wanted to show my boys they could do it, first of my immediate family.

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