You graduate high school, have an awesome summer, and then head off to college for four years, right? Not always. Today’s colleges host students of all ages and backgrounds. What accounts for the changing face of college and what unique challenges do these non-traditional students deal with?
College’s Shifting Demographics
According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), “In recent years, the percentage increase in the number of students age 25 and over who enrolled in degree-granting institutions has been similar to the percentage increase in the number of younger students . . . Between 2000 and 2012, the enrollment of students under age 25 and the enrollment of those age 25 and over both increased by 35 percent. From 2012 to 2023, however, NCES projects the rate of increase for students under age 25 to be 12 percent, compared with 20 percent for students age 25 and over.”
In some schools, students over age 25 already dominate the classrooms. During the 2013-2014 school year, University of Minnesota – Twin Cities in Minneapolis, MN; Northcentral University in Prescott Valley, AZ; and Charter Oak State College in New Britain, CT all had student bodies that were mostly comprised of people over 25.
Why Is the Shape of the Campus Body Changing?
There are several factors that contribute to the rising average age of college students:
- Online programs make it easier for adults to fit an education around their everyday schedules.
- Many schools have affordable financing options and online resources offer deals on textbooks and other supplies.
- A rapidly changing job market impels some professionals to look for a new career.
It isn’t just older students that benefit from a return to school. Younger students can learn from their older peers’ life experiences and professionals who go back to school represent a golden networking opportunity for their fellow learners.
Challenges for Older College Students
Whether older students enroll in college because they want a career change or because they just finished military service and are eager to embark on civilian life, they face unique challenges. The Seattle Post Intelligencer listed some of these challenges:
- Social interaction: While it is true that students over age 25 are increasingly populating campuses nationwide, older learners may still feel a little odd when they walk into an English 101 class that is full of people who could be their children or grandchildren.
- Academic level: Some older students, thanks to life experience or personal learning, will be steps ahead of their peers. Other older students, however, may need some extra time to get back in the groove of an academic routine.
- Schedule: Online programs make it possible to juggle a work schedule, school schedule, and family life, but some students will take a while to adjust to a routine that includes college courses and homework.
- Confidence: Everyone faces some jitters on the first day of school, even students who obtained their high school diplomas decades ago.
College is no longer the sole domain of people in their late teens and early 20s. Schools across the country welcome older learners as more and more people realize that it’s never too late to go back to school and it may even be necessary.