Higher Ed and the Shifting Life Course

Rethinking higher education in light of the changing contours of young adulthood

March 16, 2019

Not very long ago, the life course was divided into three parts: a period of preparation, a period of family and work, and a period of retirement. In recent years, that tripartite division of the life course has broken down. No longer are education, work, and family responsibilities siloed off from one another.

At the same time, the job market itself has undergone a profound transformation. The job market has grown much more fluid and it now takes longer than in the past to acquire a full-time job. No longer can one start at the bottom and expect to gradually rise up with seniority.

Other aspects of young adulthood, too, have become more uncertain and unstable. Young adults have become much more likely to attend multiple institutions and to shift from job-to-job and from relationship-to-relationship.

In recent years, the life course has become less rigidly sequenced and young adults take longer to acquire the trappings of full adulthood. Navigating the transition to adulthood has also grown more treacherous, with many more opportunities for lives to go off track.  

As an older rule book has frayed, it is not surprising that more young adults feel intense anxiety. Uncertainly and instability are hallmarks of contemporary young adulthood.

Our system of higher education has not really come to grips with the transformations taking place in the life course. This is especially true at the broad access institutions where many students arrive with limited social supports.

These institutions, I believe, need to adopt a more developmental, more holistic approach to ensure that their students navigate the path to a productive adulthood successfully.

Here are five steps that broad access institutions can take to help these students succeed.

Step 1:  Integrate career exploration into formal coursework.
It is no longer sufficient to have a stand-alone career center. As the range of jobs proliferates, first-generation college students and those from lower-income backgrounds need many more windows into possible careers. Faculty, not just career services, must help student clarify their career goals. If career choices are to be realistic, however, it is essential for faculty to help students define their interests, strengths, and weaknesses.

Step 2:  Make the academic journey more about mastery than seat time.
It is especially easy for non-traditional students to become discouraged. A poor grade early in the semester can be profoundly demoralizing. A focus on mastery of essential competencies, however, can encourage students to persist, particularly if the relevance of those proficiencies is clearly defined.

Those who bring uneven academic preparation to the classroom are particularly likely to need additional time to master essential knowledge and skills. Extended semesters, personalized learning pathways, skills workshops, supplemental instruction, and peer tutoring and peer-led study groups can help these students succeed.

Step 3:  Encourage instructors to serve as mentors.
First-generation college students are precisely those who are least likely to receive the guidance, scaffolding, and other forms of support that they need to succeed. Instructors who takes a personal interest in their students can greatly contribute to a sense of belonging and self-efficacy. Faculty can also serve as role models, cheerleaders, and advisors. Their responsibilities should not be wholly academic.  In smaller classes, individual meetings with students can carry a huge impact.

Step 4:  Educate the whole student.
A college education should be about more than cognitive growth or the acquisition of certain competencies. It should also involve non-cognitive dimensions of development, including the ability to work with others, understand other peoples’ points of view, manage time and effectively multi-task, and acquire a capacity for self-regulation and self-reflection.In addition to developing students’ soft skills, such as their oral and communication skills, faculty members should design their courses to encourage metacognition, problem-solving, and the ability to work effectively in groups.

Step 5:  Create Pathways to Success
Life circumstances require many non-traditional students to stop out or attend school part-time. We can help those students by embedding short-term credentials and certificates into the curriculum. We can also make it easier for students to meet requirements, for example, by combining gen ed courses (for example, a course in history, fine arts, and composition or government and statistics) and ensuring that the readings, activities, assignments, and assessments are tightly aligned. Policymakers could help out by extending financial aid to those who cannot attend full-time.

If higher education is to offer more than training and credentialing, it needs to firmly embrace a higher mission: to guide students through difficult and demanding life transitions. In today’s post-modern society, one can no longer speak of a standardized life course. It is not enough to relegate responsibility for student support to various non-academic offices. Student support must be integrated into the academic experience itself.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin 

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