Welcome to November, when college and university students are well into their first semester, deeply engaged in their classes, cheering on their sports teams and enjoying campus life.
Well, not exactly. The reality is that fewer than 20% of undergraduates today are traditional 18-22-year-old students living on campus and attending full-time while their parents pay the bills.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, about 75% of all undergraduates have one or more “non-traditional” characteristics—commuting to college, working while in college, attending part-time and paying for their own education. About 27% of undergraduates are over age 24, and approximately 25% of undergraduates are also parents. Frankly, today’s campuses would be unrecognizable to those of us who attended college in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.
Patricia A. McGuire, J.D., President of Trinity Washington University in Washington, D.C., is well aware of the new reality and the challenges it presents to academia. In “Where Have All the ‘College Kids’ Gone? The Changing Face of the Collegiate Student Body,” the latest chapter in Sodexo’s President to President series, she outlines the issues today’s non-traditional students face and their impacts on institutions, presenting several compelling examples.
What accounts for this unforeseen shift in the composition of college and university communities? Dr. McGuire points out that nearly two-thirds of today’s jobs require some postsecondary education, and a college degree is a prerequisite to move up the career ladder. Administrators are recognizing that a) their non-traditional students often have some formidable obstacles to overcome, b) these demographic changes are permanent and c) the changes could have a major deleterious impact on their institutions’ viability if they are not addressed expeditiously.
The ability to enroll millions more adult students will require serious changes in programs and delivery formats. As detailed in Sodexo’s 2018 Global University Trends Report, lifelong learning is increasingly common as people retrain for mid-life career shifts or to fill a knowledge gap, resulting in greater age diversity on campus. The report cites examples of how some universities are adapting to this need by partnering with companies and communities to provide flexible and accessible learning options, including rolling start dates for courses (not just in September and January), bringing in practicing professionals to teach certain courses and investing in the appropriate curricula to support working learners.
Personalized experiences support student engagement and retention, and faculties have an important role to play in that area. Professional development resources that help professors modify their teaching methods to create more individualized experiences are beneficial. In doing so, they “make students feel at home, give them a sense of belonging and ownership, not by lowering academic demand but by increasing social and academic support,” says Andreas Schleicher, director of the Directorate for Education and Skills at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
However, making students feel welcome and helping them attain a sense of belonging takes a village. According to the 2017 Sodexo International Student Lifestyle Survey, 78% of students mentioned that a friendly atmosphere is the most important of the “soft” factors when choosing a college, exceeding reputation and ranking. Non-traditional students who successfully form friendships with other students and who feel supported by the faculty and administration undoubtedly fare better. Additional research substantiates the destructive effect social isolation has on a student’s experience and outcome; active engagement with the campus community is essential for success.
Both traditional and non-traditional students benefit from technology. Blended learning—a combination of digital media and traditional classroom-led activities—provides students with the freedom to customize their learning experience, enabling non-traditional students to find a better balance by completing some coursework when and where they choose. These benefits can be integrated into every aspect of the campus experience. For example, technology solutions provided through Sodexo’s Student Living offer include a virtual concierge to help with daily life logistics. Technology-driven maintenance requests submitted via web portals and mobile options for ordering meals on campus are a few more examples of how technology improves the student experience by reducing stress and enhancing convenience, especially for those balancing the myriad demands of school, work and family.
The pace of change in all aspects of contemporary life will continue, and by monitoring trends, student needs and aspirations, Sodexo will continue to meet our college and university partners’ challenges through ever-evolving programs and services that support enrollment and retention and improve Quality of Life.
Jim Jenkins is CEO of Universities East for Sodexo North America where he oversees more than 400 college and university partnerships. With $9.3 billion in annual revenues in the U.S. and Canada, Sodexo’s 133,000 employees provide more than 100 unique services that increase performance at 9,000 client sites and improve Quality of Life for 15 million consumers every day.