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Can You Recognize a 21st-Century College Student?

by Ruby A. Rouse


Most Americans characterize college students as “kids” who attend traditional on-campus classes and rely on their parents for tuition and expenses. In reality, a majority of 21st-century college undergraduates are “nontraditional” students—for example, those who are likely to be age 23 or older, who fund their own way through school, and, in some cases, are raising families. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, nontraditional undergraduates make up 73% of America’s college students and are becoming the norm in higher education.


Nontraditional learners possess at least one of the following characteristics:


1. Delayed enrollment in college,

2. Attended college part time for at least some of the academic year,

3. Worked full time while enrolled,

4. Are considered financially independent when determining financial aid eligibility,

5. Have dependents other than a spouse,

6. Are single parents, and/or

7. Do not have a high school diploma.


According to Americans Flunk Quiz About Today’s College Students, a study by the University of Phoenix Research Institute, the public is frequently unaware of the demographic realities of the student population. These misperceptions raise critical questions for the future of higher education:


1. How do student stereotypes affect the decision of working adults to enroll in college? 

2. How do stereotypes influence education-related economic and organizational policies?


Inaccurate Perceptions of College Students


The University of Phoenix Research Institute surveyed nearly 600 American adults, including faculty and students. The purpose of the study was to measure their perceptions of college students by comparing their responses with published government statistics. Participants completed a brief online survey, indicating their level of agreement with various stereotypical statements about today’s college students. “Although respondents accurately matched 5 of 10 collegiate characteristics, they earned ‘failing grades’ overall by identifying the correct trait an average of 59% of the time,” reported Dr. Leslie A. Miller, PHR, Executive Director of Research at the University of Phoenix Research Institute and co-author of the study.




 Student characteristics for which participants’ perceptions differed from published data.


Don’t Leave Nontraditional Students Out!


The research findings have implications for educators, industry leaders, and legislators. To meet the needs of the majority of 21st-century college students, says Dr. Tracey Wilen-Daugenti, Vice President and Managing Director of the University of Phoenix Research Institute, “higher education institutions, businesses and policymakers must recognize that attending college is less frequently a pre-career luxury and increasingly a mid-career necessity.” Stakeholders can maximize older students’ odds of completing degrees by understanding the unique psychological and emotional challenges that influence this population’s decision to enroll and stay in school.


To prevent missed opportunities and misdirected effort, “organizations should align job recruitment and workforce development strategies to target nontraditional learners,” advises Wilen-Daugenti. Educational institutions must develop curriculum and support services tailored to the needs of the nontraditional undergraduate majority. If institutions, business organizations, and lawmakers continue to focus on a minority of young college students, it is highly unlikely America will reach its national goal of producing millions more graduates by 2020.



Ruby A. Rouse is executive director of research at the University of Phoenix Research Institute. Visit the University of Phoenix Research Institute website for a copy of the full report or additional information.






Posted by The League for Innovation in the Community College on 06/28/2011 at 1:23 PM | Categories: Partners & Friends -