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The Changing Face of Higher Ed

December 13, 2014

I am an educational statistic.

I started college later than most, at the age of 24. I had two young kids when I began, and balancing work, family, and school was difficult. It took me seven years to earn a four-year degree. My path involved community college, bouncing from one four-year school to another, attending part-time while pregnant with my third child, switching majors my junior year from biology to literature, and graduating with more credits than I needed.

It was a bumpy road, but I wouldn’t change a thing. Life is filled with obstacles, victories, dead ends, delays, and detours. The hardships I faced while attending college, while challenging and severe, were nothing compared to the hardships I would have faced over a lifetime had I not finished my degree.

Here’s the thing: stories like mine could be told across the country. The face of higher education in the U.S. is changing. “Non-traditional” students—students who are older, work full-time, or have families—are the new majority.

It’s important that we understand the challenges of this diverse student body if we want to ensure all college students succeed. So, I want to introduce you to a few students who represent the changing face of higher education.

A Flexible Learning Environment
Bill Gates recently traveled to Arizona, where he met Shawn Lee, a student at Rio Salado College in Tempe. After dropping out of college decades ago, he found himself in a series of low-paying, often back-breaking jobs. Shawn recently decided to finish his degree after having his first child. “I want to provide a good living for my son,” Shawn told Bill.

Inspiring the Next Generation
Members of our postsecondary education team had the opportunity to join Bill on his trip to Arizona, and we were able to connect with some inspiring students to learn more about their college experiences and their dreams for the future. Head to our website to meet students like Jameelah, who told us, “My son motivates me, and I love being a role model for him, because he really sees how good I’m doing, and says, ‘I want to get an A, too.’”

First-Generation College Students
Nearly half of the college population is made up of first-generation students, which means their parents did not receive education beyond high school. Unfortunately, 89 percent of low-income first-generation students leave college within six years without earning a degree.

A new documentary, “First Generation,” is shining a light on these students and their quest to become the first members of their family to attend and graduate from college. To see how the students featured in the documentary found their own successes through higher education, RealClearEducation caught up with them over the summer. Read the powerful profiles of Cecilia Lopez, Soma Leio, and Dontay Gray.

Finding the Right School
Jennifer Engle, who we are now fortunate to have working at the Gates Foundation, created a similar documentary, “Degrees of Hope,” when she worked at the Institute for Higher Education Policy. Jennifer was the first in her family to go to college, and—like many others—she had absolutely no clue how to choose the right one. In fact, Jennifer decided which schools she wanted to visit by eavesdropping on other students.

Far too many first-generation, low-income students don’t end up attending college because the application process is too overwhelming and time consuming. Hear how other students have successfully navigated the college planning process.

Struggling to Stay in School
More people than ever are attending college. But for millions of low-income Americans, getting into college isn't the hard part—the challenge is finishing. Terrell Kellam, 19, gets up at 5:30 a.m. every day for his 90 minute bus commute to Morgan State University in Baltimore. A combination of classes, dance rehearsal, and working in the computer lab means that Terrell doesn’t often get home until midnight.

These students represent the changing face of higher education, and they represent the future of this country. Their stories drive the work we do at the Gates Foundation. With our partners, we’re working to ensure every student has access to a college experience that meets their needs, interests, and goals.

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