There's no such thing as a "traditional" student anymore

Across the past few decades, a new type of student has been stepping onto campus—and most are making a few pit stops before they get there.

These days, the typical college student is juggling class, coursework, a job, and parenting responsibilities, finds a new report by the Lumina Foundation.

According to the report, 38% of undergraduate students are older than 25, more than 25% are raising children, and about 58% work while enrolled in college.

We can trace the shift in undergraduate demographics back to the 1980s when postsecondary degrees became necessary for workers to compete in the economy, explains Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce.

Is it time to redefine who 'traditional' students are?

But while demographics have been shifting towards older adults who work and parent, colleges have not yet adjusted to the needs of this new "typical" student, writes Jillian Berman for MarketWatch.

For these adult learners, balancing class, a job, and a family makes college especially difficult to navigate, notes Berman.

Many colleges still only offer weekday and afternoon classes that clash with a working schedule. In addition, student–parents often struggle with finding affordable on-campus child care, notes Berman. The number of on-campus child care centers dropped by 14% between 2004 and 2012, reports the Institute of Women's Policy Research (IWPR).

Community college student Erin Jones, a 27-year-old veteran and single mom, says a lack of childcare resources almost led her to bankruptcy. And she predicts that finding affording child care will likely get harder if proposed funding cuts to Child Care Access Means Parents in School are passed.

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But the biggest obstacle for many adult students is the rising cost of college itself, writes Berman. As state investment in higher education decreases, tuition prices are rising at public schools, where the majority of adult learners study, she reports.

Even the financial aid process may put older students at a disadvantage. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) fails to account for expenses like the lost income that come from leaving a job or scaling back hours, reports Berman. To get the most out of financial aid, older students must be proactive about sharing their financial needs with colleges, advised Barbara Gualt, vice president of IWPR.

But faced with declining enrollment and state investments, many colleges are beginning to view adult learners as an opportunity, says Sheri Gonzales Warren, program director at the Mid-America Regional Council.

To recruit older students, some colleges are waiving application fees or offering scholarships to returning adult learners, explains Warren. Tennessee's governor has also challenged policy makers to get 55% of the state's residents to earn a college degree or certificate by 2024, reports Berman.

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To ease the college experience, schools are beginning to offer flexible block class schedules and opening financial aid offices on the weekend, says Jessica Gibson, assistant executive director at the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.

Ultimately, student demographics have been changing for several decades and colleges can no longer "act like this just happened," says George Pruitt, president of Thomas Edison State University. Instead, Pruitt urges college leaders stop treating adult learns as a minority and start recognizing them as the new norm (Berman, MarketWatch, 8/17).

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