Over the last several decades, the profile of the traditional college student has changed considerably. It is not unusual, for example, for a college student to be much older than he or she would have been in the 1970s, and more likely to be attending school part-time while juggling work, family, and other responsibilities. According to U.S. Department of Education data, the average age of an undergraduate in 2012 was 26 years old, not 20. In addition, college campuses are also becoming increasingly diverse: many more students are first-generation, low-income, and non-white. As more working adults return to college to gain new skills and advance their careers, these trends are likely to continue.
To help students succeed in college, leaders of institutions of higher education and policymakers must design policies that help all students—academically, socially, and financially—in pursuit of higher education, not just traditional-aged students. That 58 percent of Americans believe institutional leaders put their schools’ long-term interests first, rather than students’ best interests and needs, only further drives this point home.
Two policies that would go a long way in understanding students and facilitating their success: count all students in success metrics and scale practices proven to accelerate learning.
Count all Students in Success Metrics
One prerequisite for addressing students’ needs is to include them all when measuring and accounting for college success. This, unfortunately, is not current practice. Simple questions like “do most people who go to college finish with a degree?” are not easy to answer. This is because federal graduation rates exclude part-time and transfer students, many of whom are low-income, underprepared, or non-white. Other data, like the earnings of students, exclude those who did not receive federal financial aid, including many community college students who paid their tuition out of pocket.
In part, this data exclusion is a function of the federal ban on revising federal reporting mechanisms to make them more inclusive of the millions of diverse students pursuing higher education. This ban should be reversed so policymakers and institutional leaders fully understand today’s students, their trajectories, and where there are roadblocks to success. In addition, data on graduation rates, debt and repayment, and employment after graduation should be publicly available. Students have the right to this information before they invest thousands of dollars toward a degree.
Congress is pursuing legislative change to accomplish this. Members of the House and Senate introduced the Student Right to Know Before You Go Act in 2012 to repeal this ban; another bill, the College Transparency Act, introduced by the House and Senate education committees this spring, follows suit. The College Transparency Act, if it becomes law, would allow the government to link existing student data across federal agencies to produce information on college completion, costs, and employment outcomes. The bill would both permit the government to better understand how students are faring across various institutions and increase transparency to provide better, clearer information to students and their families. The reauthorization of the Higher Education Act—federal legislation providing support to colleges and students—presents an ideal opportunity to revisit and reverse this ban.
Scale Practices That Accelerate Learning and Degree Completion
Higher education has begun to evolve to meet the distinct needs of diverse learners. These changes include granting credit for prior learning, providing competency-based education (CBE) so students can move through degree programs at their own pace, incorporating fully online courses or hybrid courses that blend online and in-person instruction, implementing predictive analytics to understand how students are performing and how to facilitate student success, and using open education resources (OER) to improve access to affordable and quality course materials.
One reason for the relatively small-scale adoption of these innovative methods of teaching, learning, and reducing the price of college may be the lack of evaluation and evidence behind these practices. Until there is greater evidence that innovative approaches serve students better, helping them to earn high-quality degrees at an affordable price, institutions and policymakers should be cautious about adopting such new methods. Understanding exactly what strategies work for students, particularly underserved students, is crucial. For example, there is concern—and evidence from researchers Eric Bettinger of Stanford University and Susanna Loeb of the Brookings Institute—that online education may not be best suited for some of the most vulnerable learners: those who enter college underprepared.
The rigorous evaluation of particular approaches or interventions can help identify what works and what does not, and for whom; and it may allow researchers and policymakers to assess and share best practices. The complexity of the higher education system—including highly diverse students with different needs—presents an added challenge to scaling policies. For example, what has worked well for moderate-income white students in Tucson, AZ might not work well for low-income Latino students in El Paso, TX.
Practitioners and researchers need resources and support from federal, state, and institutional policymakers as they gather the evidence they need to cement their confidence in what works well across various student demographics and study how to implement strategies effectively so that low-income and disadvantaged students benefit.
Once a practice has been proven to meet the needs of today’s learners, more must be done to ensure that new methods of instruction or support reach their full potential. Currently, there are few federal or state mandates for institutions to meet the diverse learning needs of students. The reauthorization of Higher Education Act in 2008 did enact new rules for disclosing information about textbooks and packaging them, enabling professors and students to make smarter and cheaper purchases. But this change alone has not facilitated widespread adoption of OER by most institutions.
A majority of institutions also face challenges in adopting innovative programs because of how the financial aid system is structured. Few programs focus on CBE and give students credit for proving what they know rather than focusing on how much time they have spent in a classroom. And this is because the financial aid and higher education accreditation system is built around relatively rigid definitions of time and coursework not easily adapted to new contexts of competencies or learning. This makes it difficult for students to receive federal financial aid for these innovative programs. If students do not have federal financial aid available to them, innovative programs like CBE become a hard sell since many rely on this aid to afford college.
Once research has sufficiently demonstrated promising results of various innovative teaching and learning strategies, Congress and the U.S. Department of Education should work to test the best ways to implement promising practices before scaling them. Experimental sites and/or a demonstration project could provide valuable insights on the best and safest ways to implement new policies.