The changing face of American higher education

The changing face of American higher education

Most of us walk around with an outdated vision of American higher education in our heads. We picture campus life with scores of young students, most just out of high school, striving to earn their degrees in four years. The 2011 reality is vastly different.

For starters, as Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute reminds us in a fascinating post on The Atlantic website (“Old School: College’s Most Important Trend is the Rise of the Adult Student“), of the some 17.6 million undergraduates enrolled in U.S. higher education, just 15% of them attend four-year colleges and live on campus! Of those that do, 36% percent graduate “on time” (in four years). The National Center for Education Statistics further reports that there are more students over the age of 30 attending college than under that relatively advanced age. What’s more, as Hess notes, the share of all students who are over age 25 is projected to increase another 23% by 2019.
One other striking statistic from the National Center for Education Statistics: 32% of undergraduate students work full-time.
The face of American higher education then is, and will be, older. More and more of the students in higher education will be working adults.
The challenge for all of us involved in education will be how to respond to these trends. It’s quite different educating 18-year-olds entering college for the first time and 35-year-olds who are juggling work and family life.
I’d argue there are several approaches that should guide us over the next decade in addressing the needs of adult learners:

  • Offering opportunities for learning-on-demand, learning that fits into the schedules of busy people
  • Addressing the skills gaps through learning that targets critical thinking, writing, and other forms of communication
  • Recognizing the value of concise, modular, and flexible learning content for working adults
  • Connecting with adult students’ experience through narrative learning, simulations, and other “reality-based” learning
  • Developing learning that supports certificate and credential programs
  • Offering learning that enhances professional development and may also carry professional or college credit

Through our partnerships with institutions of higher education, professional associations, and corporations, MindEdge has been called upon to develop online learning to address many of these challenges. The good news is that there are a wide variety of tools available (video, simulation software, search engines, digitized books and scholarly articles, community-centered applications for discussion) that can engage learners. We’ve found that monitoring student performance coupled with a consistent continuous improvement process can help refine, and enhance, how we meet the needs of adult learners.
In short, we have the means to accomplish the desired educational ends; now it’s a matter of responding to the demand.


Jefferson Flanders is president of MindEdge. He has taught at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, Babson College, and Boston University.
Copyright © 2011 Jefferson Flanders