Blog: The Educated Reporter

EWA Higher Education Seminar: The Changing Face of College

EWA held its annual Higher Education Seminar recently at Boston’s Northeastern University. We invited some of the education journalists in attendance to contribute posts from the sessions. Today’s guest blogger is Dave Breitenstein of the Fort Myers News-Press.For more content from the seminar, including stories, podcasts, video, check out EdMedia Commons. Additional background and helpful resources on higher education demographics can be found at Story Starters

The English, anatomy and philosophy courses are the same. The centuries-old academic buildings look the same. The administrative structure is the same.

The college students, however, are not the same.

Today’s students are the most diverse bunch to ever walk the hallowed halls of academia – racially, ethnically, linguistically and geographically. A major demographic shift is evident on campuses from coast to coast.

In fact, thousands of today’s U.S. students aren’t even on campus. They study online, sometimes not even in this country.

Entire segments of the population that once ended their formal learning after high school – or sooner – are enrolling at postsecondary institutions in record numbers.

“Going to college will be more important than ever,” said Bridget Terry Long, academic dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Long joined Brian Prescott, director of policy research at Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, to open the Education Writers Association’s 2013 Higher Education Seminar last month at Northeastern University. Moderated by Los Angeles Times higher education reporter Larry Gordon, the panel addressed “The Changing Face of College.”

Driving the demographic shift are Hispanics, a group that includes U.S.-born and foreign-born students. Some were raised speaking in English; others still are mastering the language. While the desire to pursue a postsecondary education is strong, Prescott says soaring tuition rates place an even greater burden on Hispanics. “Hispanics are less financially well-off than whites in this country,” Prescott said.

That means institutions will see an influx of students who want a college education but lack the financial resources to pay for it. In many cases,, their parents did not attend college, or even grow up in America, so navigating the financial aid system can be a hindrance, including the daunting first step, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

And students’ need for financial aid comes as trustees at many universities are approving tuition increases at double or triple the rate of inflation. Far too often, colleges dole out scholarships based on academic merit, not financial need. Long said that’s led to some institutions essentially “buying students with higher test scores.”

Loans are not the answer, either. Long said students take out loans not knowing the implications and burdens. For example, declaring bankruptcy can wipe away most types of debt; student loan debt, however, is written in permanent ink on your credit report.

With student loan debt in the United States now exceeding credit card debt, there has been some push back nationally against borrowing. Instead, many students are working their way through college, taking part-time or full-time jobs to finance their education. However, that route effectively means completing a bachelor’s degree in four years is out of the question.

There have been some success stories on the financial front. In Florida, for example, Long said an extra $1,000 annually provided through a state grant led to a 22 percent increase in projected college completion.

Aside from financial issues, the panel addressed other demographic shifts that will affect higher education. More adults have either returned to school to complete a degree or re-enrolled to earn an advanced degree that will further their careers. Nontraditional college students want their education like young adults want their television shows: convenient, inexpensive and on demand. They don’t want frills of a traditional college campus, like social clubs and intercollegiate athletics. They want a good campus location or top-notch online programs, ample parking and babysitters, according to Long. Prescott calls it the concierge approach, where a nontraditional student looks for a one-stop shopping kind of experience when visiting campus; the less time spent traipsing from office to office, the better.

Prescott notes that a baby boomer-led enrollment surge at the K-12 level is fizzling. Fewer high school graduates means the pool of traditional college students will shrink. That will ignite a series of administrative decisions never considered by this generation of academic leaders: cutting programs, cutting services and cutting people. High-cost, low-quality institutions will have to change their ways, Prescott says, or risk failure.

Academic preparation also is a concern with changing demographics. Many low-income students and certain minority groups perform at lower levels academically. That means they’ll need more assistance at the postsecondary level. Remedial education, however, has long been a sticking point in higher education as some question how high school graduates somehow find themselves ill-prepared for the rigors of college, while others wonder why some students never matriculate out of their developmental coursework.

“The old system of remediation isn’t working,” Long said.