In the past few years, the purpose of higher education has typically been defined by its economic and workforce outcomes. It’s seen as the best way to produce leaders, critical thinkers and entrepreneurs; it’s a way for the United States to remain competitive on a global scale. Attending university is how young adults become more open-minded, by taking humanities classes and interacting with others who have different backgrounds and beliefs. Higher education has also helped droves of unemployed non-traditional students, hit hard by the economic downturn, change careers.
But that is a narrowly-focused story that suggests higher education only serves the practical purpose of helping graduates forge a career trajectory. The National Center for Education Statistics estimates that non-traditional students now make up more than 60 percent of the higher education population, and it seems likely these students return to school for a wide range of reasons.
Many people are lifelong learners looking to pursue their interests, take foreign language courses or earn multiple degrees. Higher education allows for growth, curiosity, adaptation to change, contribution to society in new ways and self-fulfillment — no matter what the age.
Higher education is a great way to stay young, and a great way to participate in an increasingly digital-dependent, technology-savvy society. It’s good to keep one’s mind agile and the synapses firing.
The more I learn, the more I believe I’m capable of achieving whatever goal I set for myself. Higher education is what each individual makes of it. For myself, I found what I was passionate about at this stage in my life. I thought my beliefs were fairly set at this point in life, but some of my experiences in the classroom, hearing other stories, have changed my mind about ideas I previously thought I understood and reminded me of the things I truly care about.
It’s time to acknowledge that the traditional student is no longer the majority. Today’s diverse students require a new model, full degree programs with varied requirements that are better suited to the current population of students. This requires a shift in the way university bureaucracies determine prerequisites and mandatory program components. For instance, during undergraduate years, I was in a global affairs program that required four semesters of a foreign language and a study abroad semester. While I enjoyed those aspects of my program, those requirements were frustrating and at times difficult for other non-traditional students. Departments should make it easier for students to test out of language requirements if they are fluent in several languages. Also, many non-traditional students have experienced either work or travel abroad and, for those with family or work commitments, there should be allowances made to count previous experiences on their own merit or by having students submit an essay about those experiences.
Universities should consider relevant work experience that pertains to a program and bypass core class material individuals have practical experience with; it’s a waste of time and money to repeat what’s already been learned. Moreover, universities should allow students in the lifelong learner category, who are not pursuing a degree, more access to courses not available at community colleges.
Universities need to identify and better understand their student demographic. It’s time to make programs flexible in order to better serve this diverse population of students.
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