The New Majority in Higher Ed

Back to school with greater support for today's college students

As an educator and a parent, I have always experienced back to school as an exciting time of the year. I would eagerly await the arrival of new faces in my seminars, the opportunity to share new research and insights with my students, and the chance to help my own children with their homework. This year, back to school has been especially meaningful for me, as I recently saw my son Michael off for his first year of college.

That experience has given me a new perspective on the opportunities and challenges we face in postsecondary education. In many respects, Michael is not like the new majority of students who are descending on our campuses this fall. He is white, solidly middle class, both of his parents are college-educated, and he is enrolling directly out of high school. Research tells us that the odds are pretty clearly in Michael’s favor for getting a degree (and as his mother, I hope that it will be in four years or less).

That is not the reality for many of Michael’s classmates and the millions of other students across the country. One-third of all students are the first in their family to attend college, and often don’t know what to expect. Forty percent are 25 or older and nearly 30% have children, which means they are juggling work, family, and studies. One-third of students come from households earning $20,000 or less per year, making even the basics, like food and housing, a struggle. The odds are stacked against these students, as competing demands and the complexity of the system too often exceed the support available to them.

We can―and must―change this. By 2025, our workforce will be short as many as 11 million credentialed workers, unless we significantly increase the number of students getting to and through college. That means we must do a better job of serving the new majority of students I described above. These students bring high, but often fragile, aspirations to colleges and universities that, too often, are not equipped to meet their needs.

Leading institutions are doing several things that can make a difference for these students. They are using data to pinpoint trouble spots for students, like course registration. They are using technology to link different offices across the campus to give students integrated, “just in time” advising supports that help them clear some of the hurdles of college life. They are changing the way we teach remedial and introductory courses to better help students identify where they are strong and where they need help. In short, these colleges and universities are redesigning themselves to put student success at the center of their work.

And these institutions are getting results. Georgia State University has eliminated completion disparities across racial and ethnic groups, and a number of others are making significant strides in that direction. These colleges and universities recognize that there are no silver bullets, and that change can be a difficult and slow process. But, they are also committed to making educational opportunity more equitable, more sustainable, and more reflective of the realities facing today’s college students. In short, they are redefining “back to school.”

I hope that when back to school time rolls around next year, Michael will be one year closer to his degree. And just as importantly, I hope that college opportunity and success will have become a reality for many more of our new majority students.

This post was written by Dan Greenstein, director of Postsecondary Success at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It was originally published on the foundation’s Impatient Optimists blog.