Twenty years ago, the foremost issue in the mind of a person asking if high school graduates were ready for college would have been students’ academic preparation: Could the high school graduates learn, read, write, and compute at the level required by degree-granting institutions?
Today there’s a different question that K-12 educators rarely mention: Will your students be able to compete in classes with men and women 10 or more years older than they are?
Today’s reality: The headline says it all
A news story about the shifting demographics of higher education captured the new reality: “27 is the new 18.”
Adult learners, a.k.a. “nontraditional learners,” make up 35 percent of college students today. Their numbers are growing faster than the numbers of traditional college students.
The traditional college student who arrives at age 18 and leaves at 22 for his first full-time job is fast becoming an oddity on campuses.
The incoming first year student is more likely to be 27 than 18.
The proportion of college students over age 25 is expected to rise to about 50 percent within five years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics Projection of Education Statistics to 2014 (September 2016).
Of those adult learners in college in 2024, 5.5 million are expected to be between 25 and 34, while another 3.9 million are expected to be over 35.
Those adult learners come with life experiences that 18-year-old high school graduates know almost nothing about:
- a decade or more of paid employment,
- handling their own finances,
- paying taxes,
- making health care decisions,
- maintaining a home,
- keeping a vehicle operational,
- raising children.
What the projections mean to your students
Think of those enrollment projections this way: The 15-year-old student who enters ninth grade in the 2019-2020 school year, graduates on time, and enters college in the fall of 2024, is likely to discover seven out of 10 of her classmates are already older than she will be when she gets her degree four years later.
The situation of the 15-year-old who enters ninth grade in the 2019-2020 school year, takes concurrent college courses on her high school campus, and enters college as a junior in the fall of 2024, will be even more intimidating.
Her classmates may well be her parents’ age.
The value of “life” learning is increasing
As the college population becomes increasingly dominated by older adults, the value of traditional high school activities such as sports and honor society will dwindle. The value of knowing how the world works—having “life” experiences rather than extracurricular ones—will increase.
When the majority of students are the professor’s age with life experiences similar to the professor’s, instruction is going to be geared to that majority.
Students who have spent their lives surrounded by others of their ages could find themselves being regarded as a kid, competing with grownups for attention and for top grades.
That could be a decidedly unpleasant experience.
It’s time for teachers, administrators, and school boards to give some thought to how they can prepare high school graduates to compete in a classroom dominated by people who look more like their parents than they do like their friends.