Quick quiz: Picture the typical college student.

Do you have the image in your mind? (Don’t close your eyes or you can’t read the rest of the blog!)

I’m guessing the person you’re looking at is about 20 years old, has 2-3 books in hand and is walking on a college quad with beautiful trees. In the background are brick buildings. He or she is probably smiling at the comment made by the person walking alongside.

Well, in the words of some of my college friends from back in the day, fuggedaboutit! That person still exists, but he or she is no more typical a college student in 2010 as…well, as me.  Here’s the skinny…

About half of all college students attend part-time. A similar percentage attend a community college. And about half are financially independent. 38% work full-time. 27% have a dependent of their own.  Only about 25% of college students fit the “traditional” mold. (Data is from the National Center for Educational Statistics, http://nces.ed.gov)

What does this mean for you, as the adult learner? It means that you are not alone.  It means that – particularly if you’re taking your classes at night, online or on weekends (or at your place of employment) – you are taking classes with other “non-traditional” learners.  It means your professors have a greater chance of understanding that you may miss class for a family wedding or a professional conference.  It means – to some extent – the administrative offices of the College (i.e. – Financial Aid, Bursar, Career Services) will have a better grasp of adult concerns, questions, rules and regulations.  (Note: This still varies greatly from school to school, however.)  In general, this is the best time in the history of higher education for a non-traditional student to go to school.

What does this mean for you, the parent of a traditional learner? It means that your child’s classmates could be sharing a range of knowledge and experience in the classroom that wasn’t generally available a generation ago.  But, it does also mean that there is a new group in town that is consuming resources, including financial aid and faculty time and energy.

Attached (I hope) are two wonderful videos regarding the typical student of today.  One is from the fantastic Take America to College video series http://www.takeamericatocollege.com/our-team/dennis-medina/ that tells the story of a Boston Police officer / Community College night student and the other is from the College of Saint Elizabeth that tells the story of a Wall Street professional transitioning to a career as a teacher.   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kvoJE_1ffns .

In some ways, higher education is in desperate shape. Costs are skyrocketing, government aid is often being frozen or cut, fund-raising is harder than ever and we are seeing more and more questions about “is college worth the price tag?”.  However, it is also a golden age for higher education. We have an incredibly diverse student population sharing an equally diverse set of experiences and knowledge.  We have educational tools available today that were inconceivable a few years ago.  We have more graduate programs and certifications than in the history of the world.

So, where are we?  At least in terms of college education – 40 is most definitely the new 20, the new “little black dress”, the new grey business suit that anchors the wardrobe.  But it is a wardrobe that is stuffed with multiple styles, shapes, colors and sizes.  It is probably best to simply start trying some things on and see what fits.