When asked to visualize a college student, most adults will likely picture an 18-to-21-year-old; perhaps toting a backpack, walking across the quad on an ivy-laden campus. This idealized college student was once a fairly accurate depiction, and one that the media has helped to embed in our minds. Our collective perception of the standard college experience is heavily weighted with visuals of youth, historic architecture, crowded lecture halls, and - as is often portrayed in film and television - a lifestyle that is seemingly all-consumed by studies - or parties.
However, the typical college experience is not in line with this collective perception. Not only do college settings and cultures vary greatly, but the average college student no longer matches the archetypal dorm-dweller, fresh out of high school; the non-traditional student has become the norm. Nontraditional is an umbrella term with a variety of definitions, but for statistical purposes, is considered to be students with one (or more) of the following characteristics:
- delayed postsecondary enrollment;
- enrolled in school part-time;
- financially independent;
- employed full-time;
- has one or more dependents;
- a single caregiver;
- no traditional high school diploma.
While media conditioning might lead us to believe that this shift is an emerging trend, “non-traditional" has defined the majority of undergraduates students for more than 20 years, with the percentage having remained relatively consistent since 1996 (National Center for Education Statistics). In a recent interview referenced by NPR, Alexandria Walton Radford, Center Director for Postsecondary Education at RTI International, indicated that as student demographics have shifted (to the point that perhaps a new term should perhaps replace nontraditional), policies and services should be amended as well.
The College of Charleston is among the many schools who have acknowledged the growing population of nontraditional students, and has been making strides to accommodate this population’s unique needs. The CofC School of Professional Studies in particular has been on the forefront of this movement within the Lowcountry, and has launched several programs specifically-designed for the nontraditional student - with a focus on degree completion and practical 21st century skills. The SPS has also worked to ensure that nontraditional students receive the support that they need, be it through flexible scheduling, comprehensive advising, or tuition reductions.
In striving to help better support nontraditional students, the SPS regularly examines student demographics - from age at time of enrollment, to place of residence - and attempts to gain an understanding of the various circumstances or challenges that lead students to delay degree program enrollment or completion. This understanding helps the SPS to continue to develop and hone its programming to be practical, relevant, and convenient for students - as well as to compare current study demographics to those being seen nationwide.
A wealth of demographic information is available about undergraduate students enrolled in US colleges, and a few of the statistics recently shared by NPR help to round out the portrait of a non-traditional student:
- 1 in 5 is at least 30 years old
- About half are financially independent from their parents
- 1 in 4 is caring for a child
- 47 percent go to school part time at some point
- A quarter take a year off before starting school
- 2 out of 5 attend a two-year community college
- 44 percent have parents who never completed a bachelor's degree
While these statistics are not fully representative of students currently enrolled in the SPS’s Bachelor of Professional Studies program, many do apply.
Of the students in the Fall 2018 BPS cohort:
- 88% are over 30 years of age.
- Most are financially independent for financial aid purposes
- 60% of the students have maintained full-time employment; some while being concurrently enrolled in a full-time schedule of classes.
- Most had taken at least a year off from their studies at the time of their BPS enrollment.
- All are commuter students; none live on-campus.
Looking at this cohort we see that, while their portrait does not resemble the archetypal college student, it is a much more experienced and interesting picture. These students have earned a living, they have supported family members, they have gained employment in institutions such as the College of Charleston and MUSC, they have raised families. Often, these students have had to overcome tremendous challenges, financial hurdles, and self-doubt - just to get to the point of enrollment. Without diminishing the “traditional” student, one could argue that the nontraditional students - now the majority - have had to work much harder to make their way to the lecture hall.
Hopefully, the media and policy makers will also embrace this evolution, and our collective perceptions - as well as institutional policies, college programs , and yes, film and television - will grow to include the “new normal.”