WASHINGTON — Demographics are changing in America, especially on college campuses. Today’s college students are likely to be older than in past years, working full- or part-time, and possibly a parent. They are more diverse in race and income level. Enrollment on college campuses is down, while online class enrollments are increasing.
Higher Learning Advocates, which advocates for more creative policy in higher education to include job training and new technologies painted that picture of current college students before saying that policy makers still rely on legislation written with previous generations in mind — students who went to college or trade school full-time immediately after high school, lived on campus, and had financial support from their parents.
“That system is gone,” said George Miller, a retired congressman and past member of the House Education and Workforce Committee. Miller, who spent 40 years representing California, believes the Higher Education Act, reauthorized in 2008, did not adequately anticipate the needs of current students.
Higher Learning Advocates gave the following numbers about college students: 58 percent work; 42 percent live at or below the federal poverty line; 41 percent are older than 25; 39 percent attend college part-time; 26 percent are parents.
Three students speaking on a panel said Congress should write new policies to better reflect the needs of students. Maureen Elias, a U.S. Army veteran, earned a B.A. and an M.A. while raising three children on the autism spectrum. Moises Mendoza, a first-generation Mexican-American from Minnesota, went to Williams College in Massachusetts only because it was suggested by a mentor. Lydia Anderson, a full-time Montessori teacher, is getting a degree at age 60, after her husband suffered three heart attacks and a stroke.
Deborah Santiago of Excelencia in Education said reforming higher education is more than changing policy. “It’s translating stories into effective practice.”
Congress doesn’t understand “the urgency of the issues students are facing,” said Andy McCracken of the National Campus Leadership Council. “In some cases you have administrators telling students to drop out if they have a mental health issue because the incentives aren’t there for that institution to support that student through to completion.”
Kermit Kaleba of the National Skills Coalition asked, “How do we make sure that no student drops out because they faced a barrier that we could have addressed through policy?” An example offered by several speakers was to provide money to students facing emergency situations. was one practical solution discussed by both panels.
Rachel Fleischer of Young Invincibles said state and federal lawmakers need a wake-up call. “The thing that is missing is nobody is saying to elected officials, “You have to do this and if you don’t do this, there will be political consequences.”
Higher Learning Advocates’ website has a “share your story” link for students to describe the challenges they face in higher education.