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Reality Check: What “Higher Education” Really Means in 2018

Since Scholarship America’s founding in 1958, we have consistently grown and changed along with  the world of higher education. Our original, community-based scholarship programs still operate today—but they, along with our other services, are flexible, always aiming to meet the most pressing needs of students.

As we move into our seventh decade of service, our strategic direction continues to put students at the center of our work. But that strategy is also being updated to reflect new realities. “Higher education” in 2018 doesn’t mean what it did in 1958 (or in 1998, or even in 2008). For example:

The fastest-growing group of graduates isn’t coming from four-year schools.

graduate-student-community-collegeCommunity colleges and vocational/technical schools have always been an important component of higher education, but they’ve never been more vital—or faster-growing. As reported by Achieving the Dream, “over the past decade, the number of associate degrees awarded increased to over 1 million, representing the largest increase of any degree level.”

Those students are also the fast-growing percentage of the nation’s workforce. As covered here on Success By Degrees, “‘Associate’s degree holders have gained the most good jobs in both blue-collar and skilled-services industries’—more than 3.2 million positions, representing an 83 percent increase since 1991.”

The $4,800 average in-state tuition at public community colleges can be more than covered by a maximum Pell Grant, ensuring access for lower-income students. As a low-cost higher education option that prepares students for the workforce, it’s no wonder community and technical colleges are becoming more and more popular.

The line from high school to career is no longer a straight one.

In addition to being valuable degrees in their own right, associate’s degrees are also a gateway to four-year colleges for a large and growing percentage of students. According to College Board research, “nearly half (46%) of all students who completed a degree at a four-year institution in 2013-14 [the most recent year available] had enrolled at a two-year institution at some point in the previous 10 years.”

These students are part of a larger trend: only about five percent of current college attendees are students who graduate from high school, go straight to full-time college and live on campus. The other 95 percent of learners have taken time off, choose to live at home or off campus, or attend part-time so they can balance school with work.

That means the average student is getting older. According to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics, there are 11.8 million college and university students under age 25, and 8.1 million students 25 years old and over.

As a result, “college” is no longer a discrete, four-year period between adolescence and adulthood for most students. Instead, it’s a part of daily life for millions of people of all ages, happening alongside a career, a family, a home purchase and other milestones.

For scholarship providers, this is a crucial point. Financial aid models designed to serve the needs of 18- and 19-year-old dependents do not necessarily work for all, or even most, of today’s students. Community colleges provide a lower-cost way to enter the world of higher education, and gap years and part-time attendance help keep costs from getting too overwhelming. College costs are increasingly part of the cost of living; as scholarship providers, we need to keep this reality in mind so we can help keep students in school when they can least afford to drop out.

Completing a degree—any degree—is vital, but barriers stand in the way.

A college degree is still one of the best investments anyone can make in their future, whether it’s an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree. Last year, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences released a comprehensive study on “The Economic Impact of Increasing College Completion.” They found that “overall … completing a bachelor’s degree boosts earnings by 39 percent compared with ‘some college’, and an associate’s degree boosts earnings and productivity by 10.6 percent relative to high school only.” For those who complete their degree, the benefit is tangible and lasting.

Unfortunately, far too many students begin college but do not finish—31 million, according to Complete College America (CCA). They drop out for any number of reasons: cost; preparedness; lack of support; family needs; having to work more hours. (Community college students are disproportionately affected by housing and food insecurity.)

No matter the reason, though, dropping out is the worst of both worlds. Students have sunk money and time into their education and may have accrued debt, but don’t see the benefits of a degree.

As the college population has gotten older, this completion gap has grown into one of the most dire crises facing higher education. Today, that means some of the most vital work in the field is aimed at addressing it.

CCA is an alliance that focuses on keeping new students on track academically, and providing a redesigned system to serve adult learners. The Wisconsin HOPE Lab (a Scholarship America partner) is delving into the causes and solutions for student hunger and homelessness; emergency aid grants like those from our Dreamkeepers program seek to keep those students in school when faced with financial emergencies. The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation is working on resources and education to connect low-income students with affordable options; ReUp Education is researching ways to bring “stopped-out” students back to their education.

At Scholarship America, community-based Dollars for Scholars awards and private-sector scholarships have always been at the heart of our work. As the reality of “higher education” continues to evolve, we are proud to join these efforts to put students first, and to address the most pressing needs now facing American higher ed.

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