A scan of several studies and surveys reveals a clear picture of how higher education enrollment will change in the coming years. The student body will be more ethnically diverse, more female and less likely to comprise 18-year-olds fresh out of high school.
Those demographic trends are on track to continue into the next decade, according to statistics from the National Center for Education Statistics. NCES estimates 20.5 million students entered college in the fall of last year, 5.2 million more than in 2000. Following a slight decrease from 2010 to 2014, NCES projects undergraduate enrollment will climb 14 percent between 2014 and 2025, rising from 17.3 million to 19.8 million.
A deeper dive into those numbers, however, reveals shifts in the makeup of today’s college student population, suggesting significant implications for teaching methods at higher-education institutions. Understanding who comprises this evolving student population is vital to addressing the complex needs within it and better ensuring the success of every individual student.
NCES research points to an uptick in female enrollment at college campuses. In fall 2016, women outnumbered men, 11.7 million to 8.8 million. By 2025, those numbers will be slightly down, but women maintain their majority — 11.3 million to 8.4 million.
More ethnic diversity
When NCES tallied enrollment totals in 2014, it found that of 17.3 million undergraduates, 9.6 million were white, 3 million Hispanic, 2.4 million African-American, and 1 million were Asian. That marked a rise for Hispanics and African-Americans between 2000 and 2014, increasing 119 percent and 57 percent respectively.
An April 2016 NCES report projects an increase in minority students from 2012 to 2023, with African-American enrollment rising 25 percent and Hispanics up by 34 percent.
More age groups
College enrollment represents more age groups now than in the past, although 18- to 24-year-olds still hold the edge, at an estimated 12.2 million in 2016. This is up from 12.1 million a year earlier, according to NCES.
A slightly older cohort now participates in higher education, too: 25- to 34-year-olds numbered 4.6 million in 2016, just above 2015’s total of 4.4 million. Students age 35 and over are an increasing presence, with 3.5 million enrolled in 2016, a slight uptick from 2015. All these age groups, according to NCES, remain on track to grow by 2025.
Pell Grant recipients
Statistics from the federal Pell Grant program show a recent decline in both the total amount of money awarded and the number of awardees. Between 2013 and 2015, the number of those receiving grants fell from approximately 8.7 million to 8.3 million, while the amount awarded declined from $31.4 billion to $30.6 billion.
For 2015-16, the College Board showed another decline in number of recipients and total grants: 7.6 million and $28.2 billion, respectively.
Viewing the numbers over an extended period, however, shows an upswing in Pell awards.
The 2015-16 total marks an 82 percent rise above the $15.5 billion awarded a decade earlier, and the number of recipients is 46 percent higher. Also worth noting, in 2014-15, 55 percent of Pell Grant recipients classified as independent, meaning eligibility was based on their own financial status, not that of their parents.
First-generation college students
The U.S. Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid unit counts the number of applications from students whose parents never attended college. In 2014-15, approximately 10.3 million applicants reported neither parent completed a college degree program.
That number declined to 9.7 million in 2015-16. But, a longer-term view points to an uptick: The 2006-07 school year saw 7 million applicants without a university-educated parent.
A 2016 study compiled by U.S. News & World Report’s Marketing and Business Intelligence Team and Strayer University delved into the growing class of nontraditional students attending college and uncovered some interesting insights. The report canvassed roughly 1,000 adults to discover the differences in demographics and attitudes between traditional and nontraditional college students.
Researchers defined a nontraditional student as a person to whom at least one of these factors applied: he or she had received a GED or equivalent; was employed full time (35 hours per week or more) while attending school; took classes on a part-time basis while pursuing a bachelor’s degree; was 25 or older when finishing their bachelor’s degree; or was 25 or older when when they last attended classes leading to a bachelor’s degree. The study classified traditional students as full-time students under age 25 who claimed as dependents for tax purposes.
The survey showed racial minorities accounting for 33 percent of nontraditional students, versus 12 percent of the traditional student population. More nontraditional students hold a full-time job (59 percent) than traditional students (43 percent).
Because they are often working full time, 58 percent of nontraditional college enrollees earn $60,000 a year or more compared to 43 percent of traditional college students, and more than60 percent of nontraditional students report being their household’s chief breadwinner.
With more nontraditional students seeking a place in higher education, institutions must find innovative ways to help them balance attaining a degree with holding jobs and managing family responsibilities. Karl McDonnell, CEO of Strayer Education, Inc., says in a release detailing the study, “Colleges and universities must embrace online learning and offer greater affordability and scheduling flexibility in order to meet the diverse needs of this growing student population.”
Wanted: Personalized instruction
When asked what they seek in a college, according to the U.S. News & World Report survey, nontraditional students express a preference for flexible scheduling (24 percent); online courses (12 percent); career center resources (11 percent); and personalized instruction (11 percent). Nontraditional students are more likely to attend evening and weekend classes, and take 25 percent or more of their courses online, the report further notes.
Nontraditional students tend to have practical reasons for completing their college education. Fifty-four percent list “to get a better job” as the top objective, and 23 percent say they want to advance in their current position.
Related reading: How Personalized Learning Can Help Close the Attainment Gap
Optimizing learning for the new nontraditional student
The U.S. News & World Report survey didn’t specifically ask students what they felt would have improved their learning experience. Yet from previously noted preferences, it is clear that flexible class schedules and more emphasis on individualized lessons would enable these nontraditional students to overcome several obstacles they face in obtaining a degree.
Collectively, these demographic trends point to the need for higher-education leaders to expand their offerings to suit the evolving student populations. The traditional learning experience designed for middle-class young people in a full-time residential setting isn’t necessarily the most effective for the actual student body. Closing the degree attainment gap that disproportionately affects first-generation, low-income, minority, and working adult students will require updated learning design that leverages data to personalize the student experience.
To learn more about how universities are optimizing learning for nontraditional students, have a look at the case studies, reports, and guides in our resources library.
Maria Wood is a freelance writer and journalist who specializes in business reporting, finance, education and technology.