Student life

How to encourage students to tackle national and international challenges (essay)

Students in Society

Imagine a world in which clean energy is cheaper than coal, safe drinking water is accessible and affordable to everyone on the planet, and no child goes to bed hungry. Imagine a world where we have vaccines for AIDS, TB and malaria, and effective treatments for cancer and Alzheimer’s. Imagine a society where everyone has anytime, anywhere access to the highest-quality learning opportunities. Imagine a future in which astronauts venture out into the solar system, not just to visit but to stay.

These and other similarly ambitious goals are within reach -- particularly if we inspire and empower the next generation of scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs and civic leaders to imagine and embrace them. Today’s change makers have access to knowledge and resources that would have been unimaginable 20 to 30 years ago, such as access to virtually unlimited computing resources and the ability to use online platforms to crowdsource funding and expertise from around the world. How can our educational institutions offer the learning opportunities that will inspire these change makers?

A few months ago, the National Science Foundation issued a call for research and development proposals to do just that. The White House is also encouraging colleges and universities to help students understand and engage with important problems. For example, in 2015, over 120 engineering schools made a commitment to President Obama to increase to 20,000 the number of undergraduate students that participate in the National Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenge Scholars Program. This program allows students to organize their research, service learning, international experiences and entrepreneurial activities in pursuit of one of the grand challenges identified by the National Academy of Engineering, such as securing cyberspace or advancing personalized learning.

One of the scholars that President Obama met with was Michaela Rikard, a biomedical engineering student at North Carolina State University. She’s interested in developing new medical therapies that are personalized, affordable and readily available worldwide. She’s already conducted research to use nanotechnology to detect and treat cancer, and has worked with the military to help soldiers suffering from amputation complications.

This interest in Grand Challenges is not limited to the STEM disciplines. The American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare has identified 12 Grand Challenges for Social Work to address major societal challenges such as ending homelessness and family violence.

Given the growing interest among colleges and universities in addressing real-world problems, the time is right to identify the elements of an all-hands-on-deck effort to motivate, prepare and empower young people to tackle the grand challenges of the 21st century, at home and abroad. For example:

  • Colleges and universities could provide students with more opportunities for course work and experiential learning that is focused on problems, drawing on the insights from multiple disciplines. This fall, Stanford University is offering a Hacking for Diplomacy course that allows students to work on global problems such as the Syrian refugee crisis, countering violent extremism and fighting illegal fishing. Many other universities are interested in replicating this course and a similar course called Hacking for Defense. Government agencies can support these efforts by providing funding and identifying important problems.
  • Colleges and universities could target some of their federal work-study funds to allow students to work on real-world problems that they and their institutions care about. Students could be challenged to write their own job description and find a company or nonprofit organization that would be interested in hosting them.
  • Researchers and practitioners could collaborate on the design and dissemination of online courses and open educational resources that are problem focused and help students develop and hone some of the skills they will need to be effective change makers in the public or private sectors. For example, the World Bank has created a set of online short courses that help learners understand a particular problem (for example, understanding the impact of climate change in developing countries) or a problem-solving methodology (using public-private partnerships to finance infrastructure or involving citizens in the formulation of public policy).
  • Foundations and philanthropists could provide scholarships so that these opportunities are available to low-income students and underrepresented minorities.

The Office of Science and Technology Policy would like to hear from you about what your institution is doing to inspire and empower the next generation of change makers. What new actions is it taking to encourage college and university students to solve important real-world problems? What other actions should the public and private sectors take to prepare future change makers? Please share your views at

Tom Kalil is deputy director for technology and innovation at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

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iStock/Leonardo Patrizi

How college work programs benefit both the student and the institution (essay)

As colleges and universities across the country grapple with challenges of access and affordability and worry about the sustainability of their business models, some institutions are considering whether or not to establish a program of work for all students.

Berea College, where I am president, has offered employment to all of its students for more than a century, and it was one of the founding members of the Work Colleges Consortium. This federally recognized organization includes eight residential liberal arts institutions that provide a universal work experience as part of their educational programing. The work program has become integral to the Berea experience, and it might well be worth consideration at other colleges and universities, too.

The Berea Program

We often say at Berea that we do not just admit students, we hire them. In consequence, we have 1,600 intelligent, motivated part-time employees. All of the WCC institutions receive federal grant funding; at Berea, we use a portion of that to pay students in the form of a nontaxable hourly wage, which increases with added experience and job responsibilities.

The students’ earnings can be used for general living expenses as well as to help contribute to the cost of their attendance. (Although no student pays tuition at Berea, they and their families are expected to contribute as determined by the FAFSA to fees and living expenses.) The compensation earned through the work program thus helps to minimize debt for our students. About a third of our students graduate entirely debt-free, with the rest borrowing an average of less than $7,000.

The students in the main are very capable workers. The majority start in positions involving working with their hands, in food service, as custodians, on our farm (one of the oldest continuously operating student educational farms in the United States), in our students crafts industries and the like. Starting with these assignments enables them to experience and value the dignity of manual labor well done. In fact, our founder, the Southern abolitionist Reverend John G. Fee, believed in the role education can play in promoting social mobility, and to that end, he saw work as necessary for blurring the distinctions of class. He believed as well that the values of independence, industry and innovation -- such crucial elements of the college learning experience -- are best built on a foundation of productive, necessary work. These beliefs still ring true at Berea.

Progressing through their college career, some students stay with assignments involving manual labor, usually taking on broadened responsibilities, including supervision of other students, while others shift to work that relates to their career interests. For example, future accounting professionals work in the college business office, graduate school-bound students often become teaching assistants, and students interested in education can work in the Child Development Lab, campus day care center and early childhood education facility. Students can explore the various options at our annual Labor Day celebration, which serves as a large collegewide job fair.

The WCC rules and the effectiveness of an educational work program require universal participation. All Berea students work at least 10 hours per week, and we have additional positions of up to five hours per week for those who desire to earn more money or wish to have additional learning experiences. For example, a student worker in my office spends five hours a week maintaining and updating the website but also holds a 10-hour position in our athletic facility.

A work program requires supervision by paid employees -- not only many staff but also teaching faculty. Since the work experience is an important part of each student’s learning, Berea staff are much more involved in the educational program than at institutions where only some of the students work and work is not intentionally integrated into the learning experience. That’s why we consider our staff to be members of the general faculty and support and reward their contributions to the education of students.

Additionally, the element of learning through work needs to be supported by an extensive infrastructure, including evaluations, a labor transcript (which graduates can submit when applying for jobs), the possibility of labor probation and even suspension for those students who are not progressing in meeting their responsibilities. Because it is so integral to the students’ learning at Berea, we also include the work program as part of our academic program in the decennial institutional reaccreditation process.

Many Benefits

Along with work and educational benefits, our program teaches other life skills. For example, many of our students have not had paid work positions before, and most have not had a bank account. We require all student paychecks to be direct deposited so that every student learns to manage a checking account, a first step in our more comprehensive financial literacy program.

We also encourage philanthropy. We promote our payroll deduction program to the students, and more than half make small contributions from their biweekly checks to the college’s annual fund. In fact, their participation rate exceeds that of faculty, staff and alumni giving overall.

Casual observation also suggests that our campus and buildings seem to be better treated by students than at institutions where regular employees are responsible for upkeep. It’s a little different to make a mess or damage the facilities if one of your fellow students will be cleaning it up or fixing what you did.

The Berea education is a transformative one for our students, and the work program contributes to that in many ways. Close bonds develop between students and labor supervisors, whether faculty or staff, thus allowing for enhanced mentorship. Many alumni credit their work experiences as having been crucial to acquiring work skills, getting first jobs and advancing professionally. In fact, many have shared with me that it was their work experience on the campus that ended up having the greatest impact on their professional lives.

One older alumnus, for instance, told me about his work assignment in the restaurant of the Historic Boone Tavern Hotel, a campus inn that the college owns. At that time, we had a hotel management program overseen by Richard Haugen, a graduate of Cornell University’s program, who enjoys legendary status among the alumni who worked under him. He had introduced a signature dish, chicken flakes in a bird’s nest, on the restaurant menu. The eponymous nest, made of shredded potatoes, shaped appropriately and fried, needs to be made ahead of time, and this particular alum had the assignment of arriving in the kitchen at 4 a.m. to make the nests. One morning he overslept, and chicken flakes were off the menu for the rest of that day. Haugen made sure this was an experience never forgotten by the alum, who told me that in 40-some years of employment, he never again arrived late for work.

Perhaps one of the most important benefits of the program, however, is that it allows our students to become deeply engaged in their learning environment while encouraging pride, confidence and respect for all manner of work. I saw that four years ago, when I was being interviewed on campus for Berea’s presidency. On that visit, the questions I wanted to answer had to do with the claims the college makes about its mission and identity and whether they were genuine. A work program makes for good press, but it would be easy to imagine that it would be mostly about PR.

The visit included a campus tour. As we entered Presser Hall, the home of our music program, a young man was emerging from the first-floor restroom, pushing a cleaning cart and removing his rubber gloves. His demeanor, which I took in at a glance, was eloquent testimony. I am sure he had not enjoyed cleaning that bathroom, but his bearing was one of accomplishment and purpose. He had learned to clean bathrooms well and found satisfaction in doing a good job. That was the moment I decided that if offered the position I would be coming to Berea College.

Lyle D. Roelofs is president of Berea College.

Image Caption: 
Berea College student working on grounds crew

Making college work for students with autism (essay)

For graduating high school seniors who are entering college this fall, it is an exciting time. Possibilities have been opened! Yet now new concerns arise: Have they chosen the right college? Will they thrive?

These are hard questions for any young adult, but for those with autism, the stakes are especially high. A 2015 Autism Speaks report found that only 30 percent of high school graduates with autism ever attend a two- or four-year college, and those that do fare poorly. Research suggests that 80 percent of them never graduate. Furthermore, only 32 percent of high school graduates with autism find paying work within two years of graduating high school. This need not be. Half of all individuals with autism have average or above-average intelligence. They can do the work. The problem is not the students. It’s the colleges.

We come to this issue from an unusual perspective. One of us, Elizabeth, studies at Pasadena City College and has autism. The other, Margaret, teaches at California State University at Los Angeles, and -- in addition to being Elizabeth’s mother -- has worked with students on and off the spectrum. Together, we have seen the many ways that colleges fail students with autism.

Federal legislation, including the Americans With Disabilities Act, mandates that colleges provide reasonable accommodations for disabled students. But common accommodations, such as providing a quiet exam setting, don’t adequately address the problems faced by many students with autism.

As autism scholars Ernst VanBergeijk, Ami Klin and Fred Volkmar note, autism is a social disability. The inherent qualities of autism -- resistance to change, sensitive sensory systems, weakness at reading social cues and a tendency to take language literally -- interfere with communication and social engagement. A quiet exam room will not help students overcome those barriers. The problems students with autism face are more insidious.

Elizabeth, for example, struggles with understanding if professors are being sarcastic or rhetorical. Uncertain, she often responds too much or too little. When one professor expressed frustration at her eager hand raising, she asked privately if he would signal her when he wasn’t being serious or didn’t require a response. “No,” he said. “I don’t need to change my teaching for you, and you need to learn sarcasm.”

It would be easy to regard Elizabeth’s experience as exceptional, the product of one unsympathetic professor. Yet research out of Australia by Ru Ying Cai and Amanda L. Richdale confirms how common such experiences are. In focus groups, autistic college students told story after story about metaphorical or abstract language leading to confusion, as well as loud, active classrooms challenging their abilities to focus on learning. For many, the frustrations became too great, leading to stress, anxiety and regrettable outcomes. However, when students felt their social needs were met -- in particular when faculty members proved willing to modify their teaching style -- students had much more positive experiences.

But American professors are not required to modify their teaching style for disabled students, and colleges are not required to think about the social, communicative needs of any students, let alone those with autism. Those things are not considered reasonable accommodations. But if autism is indeed a social disability, then denying the social needs of autistic students is inherently unreasonable.

It would help if faculty members understood how autism affects learning. But professors are busy. They juggle many demands, and professional development is often low on their to-do lists. At Margaret’s university -- which houses an outstanding center for teaching and learning development -- professional development seminars are often poorly attended, especially those focused on helping students with special needs. At one seminar on working with hearing-impaired students, Margaret was one of three instructors to show up, and if our conversations with colleagues and peers are indicative, then Margaret’s experience is a common one. Even when given the opportunity to learn more about the needs of disabled students, professors turn those choices down.

Some positive changes are underway. More than 100 colleges now offer programs for students with autism, but most of them are private, expensive, residential programs. Meanwhile, research suggests that up to 80 percent of college students with autism at one point filter through community colleges, where students, often still highly dependent on family support, can live at home. Those institutions generally offer fewer resources for students with autism. If we are to meet the needs of neurodiverse students, public community colleges will need to lead the way.

In these days when most community college disability offices are underfunded -- Elizabeth’s community college does not even provide note takers -- meeting the needs of students with autism may seem daunting. But meaningful institutional changes do not need to strain budgets. For Elizabeth, the greatest support has often come from students who have chosen to act as social interpreters. A whispered word or two is often all she needs to better and more appropriately engage with her curriculum. Colleges like California State University at Fullerton already have mentorship programs that pair neurotypical and neuroatypical classmates.

We recommend expanding such programs so that peer mentors -- perhaps those offered the coveted privilege of priority registration -- work side by side with autistic students in the classroom. Of course, that brings us back to the privacy concerns voiced earlier. Peer mentors can only work with students who are willing to self-identify in the classroom as having autism, which is why autistic students themselves must also be involved in making campuses more responsive to their needs -- and that will only happen when students with autism bring neurodiversity into conversations about campus diversity.

Until that happens, faculty can do a lot to foster feelings of safety and inclusion for all students -- both with autism and without. Elizabeth advocates for simple kindness, acceptance and the understanding that some disabilities are invisible. In Margaret’s classes, she announces on day one that students registered with the school’s disability office should feel free to talk to her about not just the accommodations they may legally require but also about other things she can do to make her courses work for them. She shares -- with Elizabeth’s permission -- the struggles Elizabeth has faced in education, and she urges students to see her as someone who really wants to help them succeed.

Work by Nicholas Gelbar, Isaac Smith and Brian Reichow offers faculty members other suggestions for helping students on the spectrum: incorporate universal design into curriculum and assignments. As much as possible, use concrete language in both lectures and the syllabus. Break tasks down into more steps, provide greater organizational support, realize that group work, public speaking and active classrooms (such popular buzzwords in today’s curricular development) may offer particular challenges for students who struggle socially and who do not thrive in environments demanding rapid transitions. In other words, when dealing with students whose disability makes flexibility extremely difficult, faculty members must be the flexible ones. They must also take responsibility for educating themselves about neurodiversity, and if that seems too hard, they can do one last thing. They can defer to autistic students who do understand their own needs, and they can give those students the support they ask for.

One thing is undeniable: without significant changes, the traditional gateway to greater community inclusion and financial security will remain closed to people with autism. And that’s a tragedy, because those with autism have a lot to offer -- not just to our colleges, but also to our nation’s economy. We all win when everyone can compete and contribute.

Elizabeth Finnegan is a student at Pasadena City College. Margaret Finnegan teaches at California State University at Los Angeles. She is the author of Selling Suffrage: Consumer Culture and Votes for Women (Columbia University Press, 1999), and her work has appeared in College Communication and Composition, American Quarterly and other publications.

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iStock/Jason Enterline

Students deserve safe spaces on campus (essay)

I teach at an elite Ivy League university, where, for several years now, debates over free speech, racial justice and diversification have been explosive. Last year was, in a word, rough. Following several high profile police shootings, there were protests and hunger strikes and sit-ins nationally, and our own campus was turned upside down by two incendiary opinion pieces in the student newspaper and a disturbing, physical encounter between a visiting student and the campus police. As an institution, we struggled, worked hard, changed some things right away, and made some big claims and promises about our future. 

In just a few days, our students will return to the classrooms. They will expect an engaged faculty and will want new classes addressing contemporary social and political issues. Together, we will be looking to solve problems. At times, too, they will be hoping for some kind genuflection to their humanity, their youth and the dark, merciless world in which we live. In short, they will be looking for exactly the sort of “safe space” that other faculty members at other universities -- like the dean of students at the University of Chicago -- have closed off as merely self-serving “retreats” for the weak-kneed. 

I hope that at the end of the day, Chicago’s cold, Darwinian approach will be an outlier nationally -- and that students almost everywhere will be received this academic year more graciously, more thoughtfully and more constructively than those who imagine such things. Because, in the end, we will all need each other to do the work that must be done. And that work is not some sort of Thunderdome, in which two ideas do battle until one survives. This is a crucial moment for higher education, and the brisk response from Chicago reveals the stakes clearly. We -- faculty members, students, administrators and our publics -- are actually on the verge of making significantly more comprehensive adjustments to the mission of higher education than were made previously.  We should embrace those more dynamic, more revolutionary changes and drive them home.

One of the big, challenging reforms is the notion of a “safe space” for our students, a concept that is both old and new and nearly impossible to define. It can mean a single room on a campus, the floor of a building or an entire center or department. It can refer to the presence of trained counselors, the support of friends and allies, or the absence of hurtful material. Our students deserve such spaces on a campus because the absence of such spaces is counter to the very mission of higher education.

In surveying the groundwork, however, not everyone thinks higher education is on the right track, especially when attention turns to race. The dean at the University of Chicago is not alone. Critics dismiss protesting students as spoiled, “self-infantilizing,” pampered brats, and they imagine that, by responding to their complaints and taking them seriously, universities are abrogating their mission to foster an unregulated exchange of ideas. A vocal handful of faculty members worry that their free speech -- or, on a lower frequency, their academic freedom -- is under siege. Videos of student’s screaming at white faculty members and administrators circulate on right-wing blogs and websites as proof. Some donors, as The New York Times reports, complain that universities are now spending too much money on diversity, leading to a noticeable downward turn in giving this past year.

In this context, “safe space” is too easily parodied – as the Onion did, with its headline from July of 2015, “Parents Dedicate Safe Space on Campus in Honor of Daughter Who Felt Weird in Class Once.” Too easily parodied -- and too easily undone, as well, as the recent decision by Michigan State University to open a “women’s only” space to men reveals. The solution to our student’s weakness, so many critics all too often suggest, is bold, direct, repeated engagement with ideas that civil society has already deemed noxious, hateful and politically dangerous.

Setting aside the parodies and the critiques, there is a sound reason to support a broader, more comprehensive notion of safety, something that might be pushed to the very boundaries of our campuses: the world is sometimes breathtakingly, violently, terrifyingly precarious for precisely the sorts of students whom we are now actively recruiting.

Colleges and universities are, pop culture tells us repeatedly, supposed to be walled off. No wonder, then, that students see higher education institutions as both a staging ground for their protests and as a possible idyll. No wonder, too, that they keenly sense the distance between what was promised in glossy brochures -- a removed experience, a free space for serious conversation -- and what was delivered in the strange environs of a new town or city far from home -- more of the same social and political pressures, more of the same violence, whether discursive or physical. Indeed, what they read in the words of those who champion “free speech” -- which almost always seems to mean the freedom to speak of things consistently defined as backward or troubling -- is that many would like a very different “safe space,” in which one can say racist or sexist things without consequence.

The insistent request for administrators and faculty members to “do something”-- to rename a building, to remove a mural, to replace a mascot, to disarm the campus police, to disinvite a speaker -- is a plea to create the conditions where this promised distance was once again possible, to clear cut a firebreak between the dystopian “real world” and the contemplative, even monkish world of study. But it is also to acknowledge a real world in which these icons have led violent charges, to recognize a physical world in which there are disenfranchised people of color for whom these things are reminders of real pain. To paraphrase one university president, students need safe spaces in order to acquire the dangerous knowledge they need.

The safety we want -- that campus-wide, reflective, self-aware distance from the grit of the everyday -- is going to be hard to manufacture. As anyone with a smartphone knows, new digital technologies and a proliferation of social media outlets have allowed the enduring, everyday violence of racism to be broadcast, to be felt by so many all at once, in ways that are powerful. Those same technologies have also fostered new social connections, creating the movements and communities that mount these critiques. Social media lets us see absence, too.

The development, in the decades since the Civil Rights Movement, of antiseptic, color-blind institutional racism means, as well, that while we see racism online -- and in person -- we see far less justice than we once did. Vigilante shooters go unpunished. Mass incarceration is further entrenched. Military technologies, distributed to the police, get ever more sophisticated and punitive. In mounting their protests, students are driven by a sober-minded concern about the conditions of everyday life because they have been living in the midst of everything, touched personally or emotionally by violence or poverty or loss or disenfranchisement. These days, it seems, one simply cannot escape the blaring headlines and vivid color photos that program algorithms put in your feed.

Maybe the extraordinary penetration of digital media into our campuses requires us to work harder at being more mindful in other ways, in other forms of engagement. Maybe it puts more of a burden on us to be kind, to be gentle, to be supportive. Maybe it should force us to understand, more broadly, the lived experiences of our students before they arrive. Maybe, finally, it should mean that when we, as members of a community, invoke our right to “free speech,” we don’t do so in defense of obnoxious, cruel and broken-down ideas. At the very least, we should proactively work to create such spaces before things go awry.

“Safe space” seems like a pretty rarified concept, of course. And, to some, it reads as an expression of privilege. I admit that absolute safety is an impossible construct, because learning requires risk. But not all risks are equal, and there is a difference between a campus shuttle to get around a city and a campus commitment to the broadest possible notion of safety. My colleagues and friends teaching in Texas are strategizing, right this second, about how to teach with a gun in the classroom or how to discuss a “grade” with a student who might be packing. Mothers and fathers sending their daughters off to college are rightly concerned about rape and sexual violence. Parents of color are worried that their children might get profiled, arrested, roughed up or much, much worse. I am concerned, as a faculty member, as a parent, and as a human being about teaching a class on race and racism knowing that every single student in the room has seen Eric Garner, Alton Sterling and too many others die in vivid Technicolor. Concerned, too, that at any moment a news alert might pop up on our phones about the next disaster.

Faculty members and administrators thus have a calling to act. Without delay. To remove that racist mural and relocate it to a museum. To rename that building and historicize the old name. (If you have to raise the money to do it, there are examples where that has worked). To practice discernment in scheduling talks or speakers, so that we don’t bring that bigot, thug or provocateur to the campus just to win a news cycle or to get your think tank in the paper. To prioritize ideas and visitors who are actively, constructively engaged in solving (and not making) social problems. To recommit to the historic, ancient role of the university as a site of knowledge production and to do what must be done to build, in the age of social media, a campus that feels removed and distant, yet also grounded and aware.

It is not our job to make intellectual noise -- a raucous debate, a clashing set of ideas, a hurtful back-and-forth -- just because we can. It is our job, as stewards of the very idea of the university, to think hard, at some distance, about big problems and to provide material solutions. After all, every unread essay or delayed book has consequences, every missing word defers a social change, and every abbreviated paper or poorly-written research project stalls those solutions. The crucial thing is to get ahead of the curve: to read the campus as it presently exists, to think in explicitly utopian terms about what it might look like, and to move towards this new ideal well in advance of some dramatic event or hurtful misdeed.

Matthew Pratt Guterl is chair of American studies and professor of Africana studies, American studies and ethnic studies at Brown University.

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University of Chicago

Some students embrace tiny dorm rooms

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For the College of Wooster and the College of Charleston, bigger isn't always better. Both have designed student housing that embraces the concept of tiny living, offering relatively few square feet per student.

Photos of University of Mississippi dorm room set off online debate

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After photos of U of Mississippi students' room go viral, debate follows on just how fancy a student residence should be.

New book explores student decision making in college

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New book explores how those at seven elite liberal arts colleges make decisions about academics, social life and more.

Defining students as nontraditional is inaccurate and damaging (essay)

After spending 15 years in college and university administration, mainly at two-year colleges, and the past two years as a faculty member in a community college leadership doctoral program, I have become increasingly frustrated by the perpetuation of what I refer to as the myth of the nontraditional student.

All too frequently in my career, a graduating student has come to me to express appreciation for helping them to make it to that achievement, indicating that they did not think that they would be successful because they knew they “were not supposed to be in college.” They are the students our educational systems deem “nontraditional.” They are adults, they are part-time students, they have had jobs, some have had children, some have been caring for elderly parents. Basically, by not being aged 18 to 24 and a full-time student, these “nontraditional” students have entered college thinking they do not belong.

The shocking thing to me has been that these “nontraditional” students have made up the vast majority of those attending their institution. Further, nearly half of the undergraduate students in the American higher education system can be categorized as nontraditional. The National Center for Education Statistics shows large increases in the enrollment of students that have typically been characterized as nontraditional because their demographic makeup identifies them as an atypical college student. Yet the message that these students are the outsiders is persistent and causes much psychological distress and self-doubt.

Those of us who work in higher education should realize that there no longer is a nontraditional student or, at the very least, we need to revise the definition of what constitutes one. Further, the continued and frequent labeling of the majority of our college students as nontraditional is a form of othering that adversely impacts these students’ ability to successfully persist in many of our educational settings.

Referring to our students as nontraditional puts them at a starting line behind other college enrollees -- not only in their sense of self but also in the minds of fellow students, faculty members, administrators and policy makers. Using such language basically says, “We are going out on a limb by letting you attend college because this place is not really designed for you, and you really should not be here.”

What’s more, that statement might be true simply because many of our institutions, programs and traditions are not made for these students -- and this is a problem. Our institutions, programs and traditions are the problem, not the students. We must do better.

The nontraditional narrative is stunningly pervasive in higher education circles. To think about students in any alternate way is to go against the very fabric of the system of education that has been built in our country. However, we know that “traditional” college students are less and less frequently the ones that are entering the doors of many (and I would argue, most) of our institutions.

Some would argue that as educators we should simply re-evaluate our understanding of who makes up the conceptualized traditional college student. However, that is not enough. We must remove any designation of our students that would perpetuate a divide between who belongs in college, for whom college is designed and for whom college success is an option. And we must reframe our educational system for those students and address a variety of other aspects of it as we aim to meet the all too frequently proposed completion agendas. Those areas include: developmental education, student services, course scheduling, definitions of success and more.

In fact, most of the students to whom I am referring attend colleges and universities that might easily be labeled nontraditional themselves or somehow othered in the institutional hierarchy of American higher education. The elite, traditional institutions of our higher education system, the Ivy League, the land grant, the research intensive and the like continue to enroll high numbers of traditional college students, while the nontraditional ones are relegated to our teaching colleges, community colleges and the oft-criticized for-profit institutions. That further denigrates the students that cannot access traditional institutions because their demographic characteristics do not match those of the students for whom such institutions were designed hundreds of years ago. Creating institutions for these individuals that are underfunded (community colleges) or overcharging (for-profit) is not providing equal education for our populace. While I believe in the power of diverse institutional options, I do not believe in relegating students to certain institutions because of their demographic makeup.

We must think differently about whom our system of higher education serves and then drill that down to the institutional level. For example, many policy makers and educational think tanks focus only on four-year research institutions and the students they serve when making broad higher education reforms. That only offers a glimpse into a small percentage of the students actually enrolled in higher education in our country. They need a broader understanding of the actual student body of our nation, as a whole.

At the institutional level, we should check our assumptions about whom we are serving, as well as whom we should or could be serving. We must not assume to know our demographics but rather examine our programs, services and curricula to be sure they are appropriate for all students -- not just the ones that fit into an antiquated idea of traditional. Further, our developmental programs are designed to help traditional students in many ways but, in fact, those are not the students enrolling in the majority of developmental courses. How can we rethink developmental education for the actual student in the classroom and simultaneously stop blaming our failure to successfully remediate students on the lack of preparation in high school?

To be clear, I do not have all of the answers for how we accomplish the reframing and reconsideration of our system of higher education. There are many players and many thoughtful conversations to be had. But we can start with a discussion that comes from recognizing the inadequacy of the “nontraditional” label -- for only through recognizing the problem can be find new paths. And so I present to you a challenge and call for debate on the floor.

Needham Yancey Gulley is an assistant professor in the higher education student affairs program at Western Carolina University.

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iStock/Pamela Moore

Northwestern is the latest college to replace dorm keys with smart cards

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Northwestern plans to change to smart cards at four residential buildings. Many other institutions have already made the switch.

Researchers outline guidelines for ethical use of student data

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Researchers convene to discuss how the deluge of data collected about students can be used to benefit higher education without compromising privacy.


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