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Throughout their history, America’s colleges and universities have changed, in response to changes in the nation’s demographics, social mores, economic conditions, and workforce needs.  Today, small, independent institutions are changing rapidly, not only in the curricula they offer but in the student populations they serve.  Yet the perception that small, private colleges and universities enroll only an elite population remains a stereotype, even though it is demonstrably false. 

Research carried out by the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) and others has shown that this sector now enrolls a somewhat higher proportion of first-generation and low-income students than do private doctoral institutions and public flagship universities. Moreover, the composition of the student bodies on smaller campuses has been changing at an increasingly rapid rate in recent years.  Students of non-traditional age, transfer students, international students, minority students, and veterans might once have been rare matriculants, but that is no longer the case. The recently published report from CIC, "Innovation and the Independent College: Examples from the Sector" provides specific examples of colleges reaching out to new student populations.

A Brief History of the Student Body

Before considering the numerous ways in which today’s small and mid-sized independent colleges and universities are providing access to and educating a more diverse population than in earlier eras, it’s useful to consider historical context.  Who goes to college in America?  The answer has changed substantially over time.

Today, when 66 percent of high school graduates go on to post-secondary education, it’s valuable to recall that, in the World War II era, only about 3 percent of Americans had graduated from college. As recently as 1970, that number was 22 percent.  Not only has the size of the college-going population in America increased, but the nature of the student body continually evolves.

The post-World War II years saw the most dramatic change, with the passage of the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act of 1944, popularly known as the G.I. Bill. This legislation, which provided free tuition plus a living stipend, sent more than two million men and women who had served in the war to America’s colleges and universities. As a result, in 1947 almost 50 percent of college admittees were veterans.  This influx of students was remarkable not only for its size but, more importantly, for its diverse composition.  A college education, thanks to Uncle Sam, was suddenly possible for a much broader economic range of Americans.

The second half of the 20th century saw another major shift in the composition of the student body as single-sex, often elite, institutions became co-educational.  In the early 1970s, one after another of the formerly all-male institutions in the Ivy League began to accept women. This shift came about not—as might be imagined—as a result of the progressive movements of the 1960s, but rather because the male bastions feared that they were losing prospective male students to coeducational institutions. In the following decades, most of the so-called Seven Sister colleges, formerly all-female, also became co-educational for much the same reason:  fewer and fewer young women demonstrated an interest in attending single-sex institutions.

Colleges Respond to Change

This shift in student preferences provides an excellent example of the way in which the smaller institutions are responsive to changing needs.  Faced with a decline in their traditional applicant base of young women in the 1970s and ‘80s, a number of women’s colleges reached out to a new student population, opening their doors to older students, often working women supporting families or students returning to complete a degree.  Colleges founded in a faith tradition, in particular, such as Alverno College (WI) and Wilson College (PA) embraced this shift as an extension of their missions.

Traditionally, many of the smaller colleges accepted entering students only from the ranks of those newly graduated from high school.  But cultural conditions have changed, and college admission has changed with them.  Today, about one-third of post-secondary students transfer from one institution to another, and almost one-third are over the age of 25.  It’s not surprising, then, that many CIC member colleges are creating new curricular pathways and relationships with community colleges to facilitate the transfer process.  Examples abound. Alvernia University (PA) increased the number of transfer credits it will accept; Texas Lutheran streamlined its curricular requirements to foster degree completion; University of Redlands (CA) has established offices on nearby community college campuses to offer guidance. The associations of independent colleges in both Texas and North Carolina have taken the initiative to launch an online platform to connect associate degree earners with transfer-friendly programs at their member colleges.

In addition to transfer students, independent colleges and universities are welcoming students both older and younger than the traditional 18- to 22-year-old. “Early college” programs, in place for example at Hood College (MD) and Nebraska Wesleyan University, enable students still in high school to be simultaneously enrolled in college courses and to earn college credits.  CIC institutions such as California Lutheran University, the University of Charleston (WV) and New England College (NH) are reaching out to veterans (often with dedicated “yellow ribbon” scholarships). Others, such as Webster University (MO) and St. Leo University (FL) have a proud history of serving members of the military on active duty, through both distributed on-site centers and online programs.

While women’s access to higher education increased so rapidly that they now represent the majority of college attendees, progress in providing access for other groups, regrettably, has not moved at the same pace.  But there is movement; many institutions whose student bodies, as recently as 2000, would have included less than 10 percent minority students now enroll 20 to 25 percent of their students from under-served populations. A few colleges are so-called “majority minority,” and some have no single majority ethnic or racial group among their students. Several CIC institutions have instituted programs designed specifically for a local population, such as St. Edwards’ University’s (TX) program for children of migrant workers, McDaniel College’s (MD) outreach to Baltimore students of color, or Texas Lutheran University’s summer bridge program in Mexican-American studies.

The expansion of access has been a consistent pattern in the development of American higher education, from the democratization of the GI Bill to the expansion of opportunities for women to today’s initiatives to develop much more inclusive campuses. Small and mid-sized private institutions have been very much a part of this movement; their size fosters nimbleness, and the firm commitment of each to a distinctive mission enables evolution that is constructive, rather than disruptive.

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