Four-year institutions brace for population shifts

Amber Ortiz-Diaz sometimes talks to her son Jaiden about what she’s learning in her classes at Heritage University in Washington State. She's among the rising number of "nontraditional" American college students. (Photo: Samara Freemark)

This essay is a product of the larger radio documentary The New Face of College, which you can listen to in its entirety on this website or on our podcast feed (iTunes).

Colleges and universities in the United States are in the midst of a dramatic transformation. They are accepting many more students of color, many more students from working class and poor families, and many more people who are sometimes referred to as “nontraditional” students.

The complexion of the American college campus is still predominantly white. But that is changing. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, since 1976, the percentage of white students has dropped from 84 to 61. Black students now make up more than 15 percent of college enrollment. Hispanic students make up more than 14 percent.

Colleges are seeing more older students, as a changing economy leads more adults to return to school. More than 40 percent of today’s college students are over 24 years old.

And colleges are seeing more students who work full time, as the high cost of education, combined with increasing income inequality, means more students have to work while they’re pursuing degrees.

A 2002 report from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), found that the number of so-called nontraditional students is rising. At that time, nearly three-quarters of American college students were nontraditional. Experts say the trend is continuing.

University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) is located across the border from Juarez, Mexico. Students here are mostly poor and Hispanic. They represent the changing face of American colleges and universities. UTEP is also ranked in the top ten national universities, along with Harvard and Stanford. (Photo: Laurie Stern)

University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) is located across the border from Juarez, Mexico. Students here are mostly poor and Hispanic. They represent the changing face of American colleges and universities. UTEP is also ranked in the top ten national universities, along with Harvard and Stanford. (Photo: Laurie Stern)

The report defines students as nontraditional if they have any one of a list of attributes. A nontraditional student is someone who:

  • goes to school part time,
  • works full time while attending,
  • is married,
  • has children,
  • delayed going to college after high school, or
  • did not finish high school.

By that definition, most college students in America today are nontraditional.

The NCES report found that only 27 percent of undergraduates were “traditional students,” meaning someone who “earns a high school diploma, enrolls full time immediately after finishing high school, depends on parents for financial support, and either does not work during the school year or works part time.”

But these are the students most colleges were set up to educate.

“We have long tradition of higher ed serving a particular sector of the American public and not serving the majority,” says Gloria Nemerowiscz, executive director of Yes We Must, a coalition of colleges that serve low-income students.

Nemerowiscz says getting more people through college leads to a host of good things: healthier families, healthier communities, higher voting levels. She says it is crucial for American higher education to do a better job of serving the modern-day student if the United States is to stay competitive in the global economy.

A study from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce says that the number of college graduates is America is not keeping pace with the demand in the marketplace for people with degrees, and that the United States is falling behind other countries. To close the gap, colleges have to recruit a more diverse group of students — and get those students through to graduation.

But research shows that so-called nontraditional students are less likely to finish college than their traditional classmates. The biggest challenge is money. College costs have risen rapidly over the past 20 years and government aid to students hasn’t kept up. Nontraditional students may end up spending more than others because they often have to take remedial classes to catch up, in addition to the coursework required for a degree.

Another challenge is that many colleges and universities just aren’t designed for this group of students. They may not schedule classes when working students can take them. They may not offer childcare. And they may not offer the help first-generation students need to navigate an unfamiliar academic world.

American RadioWorks visited three colleges that are struggling to meet these challenges. They’re trying to serve the new student by changing everything from how the dorms are set up, to how they teach, to what they mean when they talk about success.

Heritage University: Bringing elite education to the most disadvantaged

(Photo: Samara Freemark)

(Photo: Samara Freemark)

Heritage University is on the Yakama reservation in Washington State, in an agricultural region full of Latino farmworkers. Eighty percent of Heritage’s students are first-generation college-goers. Most live below the poverty line.

“There are problems that they face that make it very hard for them to go to college,” says Heritage President John Bassett. “They have to really want to get through.”

For some students who graduate, success may mean getting out of rural Washington. But many hope to stay and give back to their community. (Read more about Heritage.)

University of Texas at El Paso: Opportunity U.

(Photo: Laurie Stern)

(Photo: Laurie Stern)

The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) serves students from both sides of the border with Mexico. Hispanic people comprise 80 percent of UTEP students. Most have jobs in addition to carrying a full course load. Many are parents. Many are the only English speakers in their families.

But UTEP is gaining national recognition and prestige. Enrollment has doubled in the last 10 years. There was one Ph.D. program two decades years ago; now there are 20. Washington Monthly ranks UTEP among the nation’s top 10 universities, on a list that includes Harvard and Stanford. UTEP officials are determined to prove that it’s possible to have a top university made up mostly of low-income, first-generation students. They say given the changing demographics of their region, the school has to succeed with these students, or risk not having students at all. (Read more about UTEP.)

Amherst College: An elite school reaches out

(Photo: Suzanne Pekow)

(Photo: Suzanne Pekow)

Amherst College is regarded as one of the top four-year private colleges in the country. For decades, Amherst served the sons of America’s elite. But in recent years, Amherst set out on a mission to serve a more diverse group of students. The college is using its huge endowment to help fund scholarships for low-income students. It is also seeking out applicants from communities that typically send few students to elite schools.

Today, more than one-fifth of Amherst’s population is poor enough to qualify for federal Pell Grants, aid available only to needy students. Some of the so-called nontraditional students have found it challenging to fit in. But they are just as likely to graduate — and succeed after they leave — as more privileged Amherst students. (Read more about Amherst.)

Episode: The New Face of College