[ Skip Main Nav ]


Diversity Defines New Generation of College Students

Published in The Chronicle of Higher Education

Much has been written about the current class of college undergraduates, the so-called “millennial generation,” born between 1980 and 2000. Many observers of academe have tried to ascribe a core set of traits to this vast group of students: sheltered, confident, team-oriented, achieving, pressured, digital and finely tuned to social networking.

Says Bill Pepicello, president of University of Phoenix, such sweeping generalizations may have some benefit to educators attempting to engage today’s students in meaningful discourse. But what makes the task so challenging is that this generation of students is perhaps more diverse than any previous generation, not only in race and ethnicity, but skills, characteristics and experiences.

Indeed, the days of the “traditional” college student, of campus homogeneity, are long past. Higher education is no more the domain of the 18 year old, fresh out of high school, supported by parents, concerned only with studying and socializing. In fact, according to figures from the National Center for Education Statistics, the “traditional” undergraduate has become the exception rather than the rule. Now, 73 percent of all undergraduates are in some way “non-traditional” —and 39 percent are 25 years or older.

So what defines the “non-traditional” student? “These are individuals who for whatever reason have delayed their pursuit of a college degree,” says Pepicello. Some have a GED only; others started college years ago but suspended their studies. They work full-time, have spouses and children. They’re sons and daughters of immigrants, first generation Americans. They’re underemployed or out-of-work family providers seeking to build new careers out of necessity. “They’re struggling to surmount not only economic obstacles, but barriers of language, culture, even basic academic and social skills,” notes Pepicello.

Such a broad and varied group makes it difficult for any school to build an undergraduate curriculum where “one size fits all,” says Adam Honea, university provost. And while some institutions hold to the notion that the student should conform to the class, Phoenix takes a more accommodating view of its student population’s needs—no simple task for a university built on a philosophy of inclusiveness and whose social mission of providing access to higher education for underserved populations, in particular working adults, has resulted in the nation’s largest university, with more than 350,000 enrolled both online and on campuses nationwide.

“Too often,” says Honea, “it’s the school that asks the students to submit to their model of teaching,” with little regard to the life experiences or learning levels of the students whom they profess to serve.

“To help a student body of such incredible diversity succeed academically,” says Pepicello, “it’s imperative that we continually review our course offerings, to think about how we can recast our undergraduate programs to be not only relevant but appropriate to learners who come to school with widely varying levels of preparedness.”

That relevancy begins with an individual assessment of a student’s prior knowledge and current abilities—an essential first step to engaging students, whether online or in the classroom. “It’s only by knowing what our students know, what they don’t know, what their strengths and weaknesses are, that we can build the most effective bridges between where they have come from and where they want to go,” says Pepicello. 

Not only does the university’s new curriculum address the academic side of the equation, but its design guides students toward mastering the life skills so critical to overall success. “Our first-year-experience program takes a holistic approach to student progress,” says Pepicello. “Depending on need, we develop a course of study that addresses personal growth and academics at the same time, but in a way that can have an immediate impact on the student’s life. For example, we might pair a course in personal finances with an introductory writing course that directs students to write about their own financial situation, making their class work directly applicable to their lives.”

Making Meaningful Connections

Explains Pepicello, if the university’s mission is to deliver curricula that are both practical and relevant to this generation of “non-traditional” students, then it’s important to explore methods of connecting coursework to things that are familiar and important in their lives. “One of the most effective ways to build understanding, to stimulate progress, is fuse new information to existing knowledge,” Pepicello says.

As for bringing students up to academic speed, the university has eschewed traditional remedial courses, opting instead for a phased approach that delivers just-in-time skills throughout the student’s educational career. “In a typical remedial course, students with a broad range of backgrounds and experiences are brought together in a single room and told to either master the information or fail,” says Pepicello. “For us, the approach to remediation is not to try to immediately fix the problem, but to introduce new levels of skills at the appropriate time as they move toward graduation. Students don’t need to write a five-paragraph essay right out of the box. It’s often a recipe for derailing a college career.” Adds Honea, “Our belief is that the most beneficial path for the students is to incrementally reach the goal of proficiency. It shouldn’t be a sink or swim proposition. It should be a steady climb toward knowledge.”

The university as well provides a robust set of support tools that helps students advance, including such online offerings as a “virtual writing center,” where students can upload class papers and within ten seconds automatically have a comprehensive set of comments on the paper’s structure, grammar, spelling and organization. Rather than correcting the problems, the program refers students to resources that can aid them as they work through the process of correcting and refining the paper.

Honea likens the progression to an outward spiral, beginning with the student at the center. “We begin the first year by talking about things that matter to them as individuals—personal matters, whether health or finances,” says Honea. “From there, we gradually move the thinking outward, to issues affecting families, to community matters, to national trends, to global concerns. But to be meaningful, it must all begin with the student.”

The next generation of college students promises to be just as diverse in its life and learning experiences, if not more so, impelling institutions of higher education to continue to re-examine their pedagogical approaches and rethink their institutional philosophies to ensure their course offerings remain relevant and within reach. Says Pepicello, “We are constantly reviewing our programs, conducting in-depth research as to who we are serving and how well, and then applying the findings to further our mission of inclusiveness, our social agenda of providing academic access to the wide group of traditionally underserved.”

Current university research has begun to identify a core set of desires common among students: academic quality, support, online offerings. “We invest significant resources in finding out who our students are, and what they want—small classes, interaction and collaboration, to name a few. Then we structure our classes to give our students the best chance of success in return for their significant investment of effort and dollars,” Pepicello says. “Our graduation rates, the persistence of our students to complete their degrees, are good indications of our success as an institution and of our students as individuals.”

But to keep students interested and motivated, Pepicello adds, the university needs to continue to be innovative in its delivery of education, to adopt multiple modes of assessing progress and forge new ways to reinforce successes. Above all, says Pepicello, the institution must continually balance the need to invest in its future transformation with the necessity to fulfill its present promise to students of a  life-changing education.