When the latest movie portrays the American college experience, it portrays an 18-year-old heading off to a dorm room. That middle class teenager is far from home for the first time, and is often not too under-resourced—or too homesick—to leave everything behind and head down to Miami for spring break.
The reality is radically different. A majority of today’s students are older and nearly 30 percent are parents. Forty-two percent of today’s students come from communities of color; women make up more than half the total student population; and 40 percent of students attend part-time. Moreover, 61 percent now rely on Pell Grants to access a higher education, meaning they come from low- and moderate-income families.
Today’s students know higher education is critical to a successful career, but our system isn’t evolving to meet their needs. Many navigate a complex system with little guidance; others struggle to balance out-of-school demands with educational excellence; and students must also try to pay for it all without accruing large amounts of debt. As executive director of Young Invincibles, a millennial research and advocacy organization, I hear stories that reflect this reality all the time.
As a first-generation college student from a non-English speaking family, Thien has wanted to be a lawyer since he was a freshman in high school. Yet, when it came time to apply to college, he had little guidance on how to find the right institution to help him get into law school. He got some help in finding scholarships from his high school advisor, but had little guidance and limited information on how to assess which schools would provide the right pathway for him. He just took his best shot. Thien is now in law school, but believes that students need clearer and easily digestible information to make better decisions about their educational paths.
Ssire, a 26 year-old student and mother of two, enrolled in St. Louis Community College to build on her education and open doors to better career opportunities. She made the dean’s list, but still struggles to balance school with the demands of full-time work and paying for child care for her children. Ssire is now working to expand access to initiatives like Child Care Means Parents in School (CCAMPIS), which provides affordable on-campus child care for student parents.
For Thien and Ssire, better information, advising, and wraparound supports would make the world of difference.
Rising tuition also makes life harder for students already struggling to afford living expenses, harming access for many. We talked to Vynny, who would like to go to college so he can take advantage of opportunities to move up at his job in Houston, where he’s been working for a year. He barely makes a livable wage as a high school graduate, which also makes it virtually impossible for him to pay for further education to advance his career. Smart investments in need-based financial aid that help bring down the cost of college could help low-income students like Vynny overcome what he describes as, “the biggest struggle I’ve had.”
These challenges are urgent but solvable—we can do more for Thien, Ssire, and Vynny. And perhaps most importantly, we can and should rethink who ultimately bears responsibility for reforming the system to better serve today’s students. In order to move the ball forward for them, we need colleges and universities, states, and the federal government to do more.