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Changing Student Demographics

University Business, Oct 2007

HIGHER EDUCATION HAS long left behind the image of an American college population featuring predominantly young men from affluent, well-connected families. Today more women are attending college than men; many older, nontraditional students are earning degrees while raising families; and financial aid, scholarships, federal loan programs, and changed policies have opened collegiate doors for students of all income levels and cultural backgrounds.

During the first decades of the 21st century, the faces of the American college population will continue to change. In an increasingly diverse United States, demographers anticipate that by 2020, students of color will comprise 46 percent of the nation's total student population.

Although the population of college-going students will include many students whose backgrounds reflect those currently on our campuses, it will also include many low-income students, first-generation college students, and nonnative students whose first language is not English. Many of these students will seek to further their education and earn the college degrees that are more important than ever in securing professional employment.

Our colleges and universities have an increasingly critical social responsibility to address the growing need to educate this more diverse group of students. Education is a higher good, an equalizer, and a way of opening doors for all those seeking to make the American dream a reality. Higher education must be accessible to every qualified student seeking a college degree, regardless of income, race, culture, or background.

Higher education must be accessible to every qualified student.

While eagerly seeking the diversity of perspective and experience these students will bring to the classroom, the world of higher education must also be prepared to address the multifaceted challenges this diverse population may present.

Cost of attendance is one of the most significant investment decisions a family will make. Although tuition paid by students and families covers only a portion of the cost of operating an institution, colleges and universities must nonetheless be continually vigilant about setting those tuition charges responsibly. We must also make the most strategic allocations of financial aid not only to build a high-quality student body but also to provide access to students from all backgrounds.

One relatively simple, but nonetheless important, way to increase access and accountability in higher education is by making information about colleges, especially about the admissions and financial aid processes, more understandable-more transparent-for students and their families.

This fall, the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities is launching the University and College Accountability Network (U-CAN), which will publish data about individual institutions on the web for the general public. This free consumer resource will help students and their parents understand the real costs of attending college and provide concrete measurements of student success by reporting retention and graduation rates, as well as graduate school and career placement statistics.

To increase access to higher education, colleges and universities will need to determine ways to reach out to all students, offer counseling and advice to those who may be less savvy about how to fund an education, and be prepared to provide financial resources to lessen the burden on students and their families. The growing trend of institutions making SAT scores optional for admission, while relying on other strong predictors of success in college such as the high school GPA, is yet another vehicle to open the door wider to a more diverse group of students.

Each institution will need to evaluate and enhance its own admissions, financial aid, and retention programs to meet the needs of this changing student population. At the same time, however, no one institution can take on these issues alone. Only by committing as an enterprise of institutions can a united world of academia ensure the best for all students-particularly those needing the most support.

All institutions-public and private, four-year and two-year-have the responsibility to address these issues. The data clearly indicate that the profile of students attending four-year private as well as four-year public institutions is very similar, with both sectors equally serving low-income students. Each institution has a significant role to play. No one wants to see a qualified student, passionately dedicated to earning a degree, turned away from the opportunities presented by further education.

While committing to increasing access, institutions also need to have success strategies in place to support students in earning their degrees and to minimize the number of students who leave higher education when challenges become insurmountable obstacles.

University faculty and administrators are acutely aware of the increasing pressures and distractions students today bring to the campus: inordinate work commitments, lack of parental social support and college familiarity, family obligations requiring their attention, to name only a few. These demands are often greater for the low-income student. These demands also often translate into having to leave college before completing one's degree.

One of the largest challenges our institutions face is determining how best to serve these students to guarantee that they have the resources and assistance needed not merely to stay but to excel.

At College of Notre Dame of Maryland, students of color constitute 32 percent of the undergraduate population. In addition, 17 percent of College of Notre Dame's undergraduate students are low-income students, meaning they have an annual family income below $25,000. In fall 2006, more than 95 percent of first-time degree-seeking students applied for and received financial assistance-with students receiving aid toward as much as 75 percent of the tuition costs.

Despite the many challenges facing low-income students, they perform comparably at College of Notre Dame to all other students, as measured by grade point average and time to graduation.

At College of Notre Dame, we credit the close mentoring relationships between faculty and students; invested, student-focused staff; and a close-knit student body that gives students a social network and vibrant support system. The adult students in our Weekend and Accelerated colleges also find a community of students, faculty, and staff who inspire them to continue.

As the makeup of our student population continues to evolve, though, we may need to evolve as well to meet those changing needs. This new population may require different or additional academic support services and other programs, not only to help make the transition to college but to make certain that students continue along a smooth progression toward graduation.

Already colleges and universities nationally are strengthening programs to improve the retention of all students, nourishing the students who need the most support and functioning as examples of a true alma mater.

If the disparity in the college attendance rates of the highest-income and lowest-income Americans were reduced considerably, nearly $250 billion would be added to the gross domestic product and $80 billion would be collected in taxes, according to a 2001 report of the U.S. Education Department's Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance. These additional graduates with essential skills would also contribute greatly in addressing the critical shortages we know we will face in the workforce.

When the founders of College of Notre Dame, the School Sisters of Notre Dame, came to the United States in 1847, they were motivated by a desire to offer education to secure a better place in society for women and the country's poorest and most overlooked residents.

Today that same compelling need for education remains, even as the faces of those students have changed. The responsibility to ensure that higher education is accessible and that success is attainable falls on the shoulders of each and every college and university today. As we embrace these challenges, we will become not only stronger institutions but also a stronger nation.

Mary Pat Seurkamp is the president of the College of Notre Dame of Maryland.