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The Changing Face of Higher Education

Higher education is paying far too little attention to the needs of adult, nontraditional students. While the quintessential college student leaves home at eighteen to go live on a college campus for four years, that familiar archetype is now the exception.

There are 17.6 million undergraduates enrolled in American higher education today. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that just 15 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 32 percent work full-time. Of those students enrolled in four-year institutions, just 36 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 23 percent by 2019.

The demands for degrees reflect this changed population. Slightly over half of today's students are seeking a "sub-baccalaureate" 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, compared to 1.6 million bachelor's degrees.

While public debate typically 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, workers with an associate's degree earned $141 more per week, on average, than those whose highest degree is a high school diploma.

And yet, sub-baccalaureate programs continue to often seem marginal in the press and the higher education mainstream. 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 so that they can reenter the workforce, get promoted, or change careers.

Even nonselective four-year institutions strive to imitate more richly funded research universities, catering to "traditional" students, as best they can. They aspire to limit the time that faculty spend teaching so as to block out time for "research," and make little effort to police the caliber of syllabi, instruction, or assessment. They do little or nothing to ensure that the best teachers are teaching the most important classes.

It's the rare community college that has even attempted to figure out who its best teachers are. Indeed, both community colleges and teaching-oriented four-years aspire to hire Ph.D. instructors whenever possible, despite the fact that the doctorate is a research degree which says little about instructional ability.

The vast majority of community colleges adhere to a semester system that works well for 19-year-olds used to the rhythms of high school, but that's hugely frustrating for workers whose schedule may not fit the academic calendar (or unemployed workers trying to get retrained in a hurry).

Go-to resources, such as the U.S. News rankings, focus on four-year institutions and traditional measures of prestige like acceptance rates and graduation rates--while offering nothing for those trying to choose among a stew of certification programs.

Intriguingly, there are some colleges--especially for-profits--that have made greater efforts to fundamentally refashion their programs around the needs of adult students. What's that entail? Ensuring that new courses are starting continuously, not just in September and January. Hiring practicing professionals to teach, when appropriate. Investing in high-quality syllabi and assessments, and ensuring that faculty are prepared and willing to use them.

Absent high-quality retraining, it's easy for workers in dying industries to get stuck, their skills to atrophy, and their networks and work habits to erode. This shrinks the supply of skilled workers, discouraging employers and perhaps leading them to put off expansion or to look overseas. Doing a better job of providing accessible, high-quality training, and helping students identify those programs, may not garner the headlines of a new research lab or football stadium--but is a whole lot more likely to make a difference for workers and communities across the land.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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