Are You Ready for the Shifting Demographics of College Students?

On a national scale, there has been improvement in baccalaureate-or-higher graduation rates across racial categories, age 25 to 29. Because college completion rates are lower among underserved categories of students, the benefits are shared unequally. Underserved categories include non-white race/ethnicity, first generation college attendees, low-income, and rural. From 2000 to 2016, the graduation rate increased for those who were White (from 34 to 43 percent), Asian/Pacific Islander (from 54 to 64 percent), Black (from 18 to 23 percent), and Hispanic (from 10 to 19 percent) (National Center for Education Statistics, 2017). These statistics reflect all modes of delivery. Focusing on online delivery, Figure 1 shows the six-year graduation rates in 2015 for students of the fall 2009 cohort at 232 mostly or completely online institutions. Each of the rates are significantly lower than overall graduation rates, and the gap between the rates for White, Asian graduates and other race/ethnicity groups, ranges from 6 to 18 percentage points.

Figure 1: Six-year baccalaureate graduation rates of predominantly online institutions, 2015 (n=232).

The percentage of underserved students enrolling in postsecondary education is projected to grow, as racial/ethnic minorities will make up half of all enrollments by 2025 (Figure 2). Compounding this challenge is the number of adult, non-traditional learners entering higher education at growing rates. A study of National Center of Education Statistics data by the National Student Clearinghouse found that 1/5 of first-time college students are over the age of 24, which is the age defined for traditional students (Shapiro et al., 2016, p. 14, tab. 1). Students in this non-traditional age group may not be interested in the traditional residential college experience and are likely to be pursuing education while balancing work, family, children, and other responsibilities. The same study looked at completion rates for adults who started undergraduate education at over age 24, and only 34.2% completed at the first college, and another 6.6% at a separate college within six-years (p. 19, fig. 8). While colleges are responding to this non-traditional group through programming, student services, and support, these institutions are not structured with the non-traditional student in mind, potentially resulting in decreased retention for these students. The time pressures alone pose additional risk for graduation rates among this segment.

Figure 2: Ratio of U.S. white or Asian college students with all others. Built from (Snyder, de Brey, & Dillow, 2016, p. 497, tab. 306.30)

As we contemplate this change in our students, we should remember the words of Benjamin Bloom:

“After forty years of intensive research on school learning in the United States as well as abroad, my major conclusion is: What any person in the world can learn, almost all persons can learn if provided with appropriate prior and current conditions of learning.

If we accept a student, we have an obligation to set up the conditions of learning.

David Leasure

An innovator in online higher education, David Leasure has led online university programs, problem-based approaches to online learning, and competency-based education. He has served as provost at Western Governors University, Colorado Technical University and Jones International University. Leasure earned bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in computer science and was associate professor of computer science at Texas A&M University Corpus Christi, where he turned his interests from artificial intelligence to teaching and learning with technology. Leasure led the creation of CTU Online, served as CTU’s doctoral chancellor, and president of Jones International University. His core belief is that all students can learn and his passion is helping them and their institutions succeed.