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Colleges Struggle to Adapt to Changing Demographics

A more diverse student body poses challenges in admissions, teaching, and counseling.

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Quick: Picture a “typical” college student. Are you envisioning a young person wearing a college sweatshirt, living in a dorm and attending school full time?

Try again: Full-time students who live on campus account for less than 15 percent of all undergraduates, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

At a recent Education Writers Association seminar, three experts on student demographics suggested that investigations into changes to the makeup of the nation’s undergraduate student body can spark fresh and impactful stories.

Surprising facts about campus demographics

Lorelle Espinosa, an assistant vice president at the American Council on Education, encouraged journalists to debunk stereotypes about who populates colleges today.

For example, she noted, a full 55 percent of undergraduates are “nontraditional” students, meaning they are older than 25, have served in the military or are living independently. (In early 2019, ACE published a report on the changing demographics of college students.) Forty-five percent of today’s college students are nonwhite, and 43 percent are low-income, Espinosa said.

Additionally, misconceptions persist about first-generation college students. While the stereotype for that group is of low-income students of color, nearly a quarter of white students are first generation, according to the U.S. Department of Education. One significant group of first-generation students that is often overlooked: rural white students, Espinosa added.

Another surprising reality: nearly a quarter of all undergraduates are parents, said another speaker, Barbara Gault of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Conflicts between policies and demographics

Compelling stories also can be sparked by investigating how institutions and higher education policies are serving – or failing to serve – the needs of the increasingly diverse student body, the speakers said.

For example, Kedra Ishop, the University of Michigan’s vice provost for enrollment management, suggested journalists examine the college admissions process with an eye toward hurdles that might disadvantage diverse applicants.

Application forms that feature hundreds of questions, or the expectation that applicants boast transcripts packed with Advanced Placement credits and numerous extracurricular activities can significantly hamper access, she said.

Meanwhile, even as they are pressed to admit more applicants with incomes low enough to make them eligible for Pell Grants, admissions officers are barred from knowing which applicants qualify for those grants, she said.

“The federal rules seem to be working at cross-purposes” with the goal of improving opportunities for low-income students, Ishop said.

Student-parents overlooked

Gault outlined ways higher education institutions can fail to serve student-parents.

Many campuses, for example, do not even track how many students are parents – an oversight that explains why these students often don’t receive the added support they need, she said. Gault pointed to a recent spate of campus child-care center closures, and failures to provide many students with financial aid to cover child-care expenses.

A related issue worthy of investigation is how domestic violence – and the ability of abusers to interfere with education opportunities – can sidetrack student-parents, Gault said.

Changing counseling needs

Espinosa said some campuses where nonwhite students now make up a majority have put concerted effort in not only getting these students in the door but also supporting them on their way to earning degrees. Some boast impressive outcomes in moving students up the income ladder, she said.

Many colleges also are grappling with increased demands for wellness and mental health services, she said. Many campuses are expanding their services to provide more comprehensive support – helping students better manage their time and nurture relationships with faculty, among other efforts, she said.

“College leaders will tell you you can’t ‘counseling-center’ your way out of this,” Espinosa said.

As they throw out old assumptions about who undergraduates are, colleges have to come up with innovative ways to educate and support a more diverse student body. In turn, the media has to bring a fresh, critical eye to these efforts — and how well they’re working.