College kids today

Love this piece from NPR emphasizing that today’s “typical” college kid is not the full-time, 18-22 year old student, fresh out of high school.  The reality:

But these days that narrative of the residential, collegiate experience is way off, says Alexandria Walton Radford, who heads up postsecondary education research at RTI International, a think tank in North Carolina. What we see on movie screens and news sites, she says, is skewed to match the perceptions of the elite: journalists, researchers, policymakers.

Today’s college student is decidedly nontraditional — and has been for a while. “This isn’t a new phenomenon,” Radford says. “We’ve been looking at this since 1996.”

So, what do we know about these “typical” college students of today?

Radford has done a lot of research on this and defines the nontraditional student as having one or more of the following characteristics:

  • Financially independent from their parents
  • Having a child or other dependent
  • Being a single caregiver
  • Lacking a traditional high school diploma
  • Delaying postsecondary enrollment
  • Attending school part time
  • Being employed full time

So here’s a snapshot of the 17 million Americans enrolled in undergraduate higher education, according to numbers culled by the National Center for Education Statistics.

  • 1 in 5 is at least 30 years old
  • About half are financially independent from their parents
  • 1 in 4 is caring for a child
  • 47 percent go to school part time at some point
  • A quarter take a year off before starting school
  • 2 out of 5 attend a two-year community college
  • 44 percent have parents who never completed a bachelor’s degree

One thing for sure, says Radford, is that it’s probably time to coin a new phrase for nontraditional students, considering they are the new normal.

Pretty sure that most of my students still fit the “traditional” narrative, but Radford is right that, on the whole, this is really misleading and we need to adjust out cultural conception of “college student” to better reflect reality (and have policy that follows).

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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