The New “Traditional” College Student: President of AASCU Discusses the Changing Demographics of Higher Education
Over the past decade, the definition of a “traditional” college student has been turned on its head. According to Dr. Mildred García, President of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, students today have different backgrounds and needs than the prototypical college students of the past.
“Our students are no longer 17 through 21. They are no longer the student that we were thinking about maybe 30 years ago, where the parents would send their children to college. They would be taken care of. They didn’t have to work. And they went off to dorms…As a matter of fact, that’s the nontraditional student today. And so the changing demographics is number one,” says Dr. García.
So how does higher ed adapt to the new normal, and help support today’s demographic of students? Dr. García says that in the case of AASCU’s member institutions, many schools are building their strategic plans directly around student-centered transformation.
“So it is about looking at, where are the programs? How many students are we are enrolling? What are the support services? Which support services are really working and which are not? And actually transforming the institution to be student-centered, and ensuring that they’re graduating at a pace that is good for the student as quickly as they possibly can. And then measuring to see how well they’re doing that,” says Dr.García.
Listen in to our interview with Dr. García to find out how institutions can build more effective plans for growth and innovation by focusing on student success.
Hester Tinti-Kane: This is Hester Tinti-Kane with EdTech Times, and today we’re speaking with Mildred García. She’s the president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. The topic today is the transformation of higher education. So Mildred, how are you today?
Mildred García: I’m doing well, Hester. Thank you so much for this opportunity.
Hester Tinti-Kane: Would you tell us a little bit about AASCU?
Mildred García: AASCU represents state colleges and universities in the country, over 400 of our institutions. So we are a presidential membership organization that provides voice to state colleges and universities and the important role state colleges and universities do in this country.
Hester Tinti-Kane: So, there’s a lot happening in higher education right now, as you know. So, let’s talk a little bit about some of the biggest challenges that our institutions are facing right now.
Mildred García: Well the first challenge is the changing demographics of this country. Our students are no longer 17 through 21. They are very diverse from all social and economic and ethnic backgrounds. They are no longer the 17-21 student that we were thinking about maybe 30 years ago, where the parents would send their children to college. They would be taken care of. They didn’t have to work. And they went off to dorms. That is not the students. As a matter of fact, that’s the nontraditional student today. And so the changing demographics is number one.
Mildred García: Number two is the disinvestment by states in higher education, and the tremendous economic pressure at a time when our students need much more attention, need to learn more, need to be ready for the changing world before them. I would say that that’s the second thing.
Mildred García: And then the third is technology and the explosion of technology. And how do you use the technological tools in learning and preparing students to go out into the world?
Hester Tinti-Kane: Right. And those are some major challenges. So, with these challenges in front of them, how do higher ed institutions stay affordable for their students while at the same time remain sustainable from a financial perspective?
Mildred García: You know, AASCU institutions in particular are giving a lot of thought to that. And one of the things that I’ve noticed that AASCU institutions are doing is being very thoughtful and deliberate in putting together strategic plans; understanding who they are, what is their mission, what are the goals, having accountabilities, and ensuring they are doing everything efficiently and at the same time with quality.
Mildred García: So it is about looking at, “where are the programs? How many students are we enrolling? What are the support services? Which supports services are really working and which are not?” And actually transforming the institution to be student-centered, and ensuring that they’re graduating at a pace that is good for the student as quickly as they possibly can. So, they’re putting together a lot of mechanisms based on their context, their reality in their state. But being focused, intentional, and executing. And then measuring to see how well they’re doing that.
Hester Tinti-Kane: Right. So, let’s talk about some examples of institutions that are really effectively adapting to these changes. So maybe we can talk about a few examples and then you can also share how they’re doing it.
Mildred García: OK. I want to start out with the one I’m most familiar with. I just left the presidency of Cal State Fullerton. When I arrived at the campus, graduation rates had been stuck at 52 percent over the last 10 years. And we started to do a very strategic plan, focused completely on student success. We had strategies and benchmarks. As I left, graduation, after five years, went from 52 percent to 67 percent in five years.
Mildred García: So, one of the things that we did that was really, I thought, very instrumental. Number one is educating the campus about, “Who are your students?” Understanding that yes, our students are Asian American, but mostly Vietnamese, who are first generation, low-income students. And going into those communities. And speaking to those communities. As well as Hispanic students.
Mildred García: And at Fullerton, in particular, we put together student success teams in each college. It was the associate dean of that college, an assistant dean of the student, advisors, tutoring, career specialists, retention specialists.
Mildred García: And so that actually helped because the students had a place to go in their college. They didn’t have to run around the entire campus and be able to see that people were really caring for them.
Mildred García: The other thing that we learned was first-generation low income students from any background, when they fail in that first semester, they feel they shouldn’t belong there. Immediately when they saw that a student had failed, they immediately called that student, pulled them in and said, ‘These things happen. Let’s see how we can help you in order to progress, because this place is for you.’ So, that’s one example.
Mildred García: The other example along the same lines is Framingham State University, where the institution has learned to understand that the students are changing. So how do you educate a campus to think about: who are your students? Where do they come from? What are their needs? And so they started to do these data days and demographic days at Framingham State, educating not only the student services people — which is normally what we do — but faculty, staff, administration, everybody learning ‘who are these students? What are their needs?’ And understanding, ‘how do we work together?’, in order to make them successful. So, they became a learning environment for the entire campus.
Mildred García: And then the other institution I just visited: Sam Houston State College in Huntsville, Texas. Well, what they are doing is understanding the new technology. And so they’ve learned that students are looking for hybrid technological courses as well as completely online, and experimenting and monitoring the quality and the success rate. And at the same time, they redesigned their math courses — which we know is a big barrier for many students — and they are using technology and using other methods. And as they moved, they found that they have a 75 percent success rate.
Mildred García: So, everybody is thinking about, ‘how do we help the student in order to be successful with quality programs and moving them through as quickly as they can to go out into the world and do the great things that they will do?’
Hester Tinti-Kane: That is really interesting. That sounds very customized and very personalized for the communities that are attending. But I have to say that it’s very high touch.
Mildred García: The person has to feel that they belong to something. I mean this is research from 1977 and Vincent Tinto. My goodness, this is not new. We have to let people who are new to an environment feel that they are part of that community, and that they can be successful in that community. And sure, we’re using technology. But you — Doesn’t mean you can’t use technology to have that high touch.
Hester Tinti-Kane: So, let’s talk a little bit more about how some higher ed institutions are starting to invest in collaborative partnerships. So, how are those partnerships starting to advance some things in public higher education?
Mildred García: So, there are a lot of public and private partnerships that are starting to percolate through higher education. One is, of course, the partnerships with businesses and communities. Because, we have to be honest that our students are coming into higher education in order to get the skills, in order to get a career or job, or beyond: go to graduate school. So how do we start that early? And how do we build partnerships? And this too is not new, but we’re doing it intentionally. With businesses, with community-based organizations, with museums, with legislators.
Mildred García: Whatever the student is interested in, start very early to think about what they think they want to do when they graduate, and then have public/private partnerships that are very focused and intentional. Not just for the best students, but for all the students to have an internship, to have a co-operative, to meet with people in that field to understand what it means to work in whatever field you’re talking about. The other thing we’re doing is in the sciences, having students actually work in the labs.
Mildred García: You’re seeing partnerships and really sourcing out certain things, things that maybe higher ed should not be involved in. And so campuses are starting to think about if we’re focusing on students, and this is something in the background, perhaps we can outsource that, and really focus all the limited resources we have on students and their learning and our faculty and staff.
Hester Tinti-Kane: Let’s talk a little bit about your organization and one of the major goals: to better understand and support the role and the public purposes of State Colleges and Universities. So one of the main pieces really is public opinion — public opinion of higher education, state universities, public universities. So, let’s talk a little bit about that piece.
Mildred García: So, what has happened with the public perception is that they see all of higher education as the same, right? And I represent state colleges and universities, regional state colleges and universities in the country. I’m not sure the public really understands the difference. What’s the difference between our institutions and let’s say a U.C., a University of California. And I think we have to do a better job in talking about the differences in multiple ways.
Mildred García: And we have to use multiple ways of voicing that, not only to policymakers, but to the communities. And we have to understand that they no longer sit with a newspaper on a Sunday reading it or watch it on TV, that we have to use the new technological tools. May that be Twitter, may that be Instagram, may that be Facebook. We need to start using those vehicles in order to let the public know what we’re doing and use it not only with stories, but with data. And definitely with stories because, you know, you get people’s mind with data, and heart and soul with stories and using your students.
Mildred García: The other thing I think we need to do is use our alums. So, as I think about the three institutions I served, there were some very powerful success stories. We need to use them to talk about what the AASCU institutions do for them as first generation, low-income, who are now these big CEOs, are running their own companies, and saying, “wait a minute, because people will listen to people that are outside of higher ed, and hear their story along with the data.”
Hester Tinti-Kane: That’s fantastic. That sounds like an amazing strategy. I look forward to seeing it come to life. So, let’s talk a little bit about innovation overall, and how not only can it change public perception, but also it can really lead to the survival, you know, and thriving of higher ed institutions.
Mildred García: You know, I think organizations like AASCU, they bring together not only the presidents and their teams to think about what they’re doing, but they bring in the experts to kind of challenge the thinking of where you’re going and what you’re doing.
Mildred García: So, for example, right now, we have a program called Reimagining The First Year. We all know how important the first year is for all college students. 44 institutions talking about how they’re going to reimagine the first year, based on their particular context. All of that, they are taking back to their campuses. And so we have these 44 institutions doing that throughout the entire year and reimagining the first year experience.
Mildred García: The other thing we’re doing is listening to the public. And so, our next step will be: ‘OK, now that we’re thinking about reimagining the first year, how do we get students to begin to think about — from the moment they walk on campus — what is it that they think they want to do when they graduate?’ And so begin very early on in that first year, a career component. Not necessarily what they want to do, but the options.
Mildred García: I’ll give you a quick example. I am a first generation college student, and had no idea of the multiple, multiple opportunities there were. First generation and low-income students, who are the most vulnerable in our institutions, need people to help them think through, “what does it mean to be an engineer? What does it mean to go into STEM? What does it mean to go into the social sciences?” And help them see the possibilities, that it’s OK. If you want to write, you can go into journalism. You could become a writer for museums. You can do so many things. But they don’t know what’s possible. And we have to help them think what’s possible. And we have to start that early.
Hester Tinti-Kane: And it’s interesting too because I think — and I will admit that I have a senior in high school right now and I have another quickly following — I mean, as families are thinking about higher education, they’re thinking about it as you know as an investment. And when it comes to their lives, this is one moment in time. Life goes on after higher education. So I think that the idea of helping them, early on, think about what is next, is something that is very refreshing and perhaps innovative in higher ed.
Mildred García: Yeah, I think it’s something that one or two institutions in the country have done very well, but has not caught on as much as I believe it should. Especially with the changing demographics. If we admit students, we have a responsibility to be able to help them along the way and give them those opportunities.
Mildred García: And I will say, I did work at an institution that had two internships for every bachelor’s degree. And students would go into that internship early on and say, “Oh my god, I don’t think I want to be in that career.” Now they know, ‘Oh, what I thought and glamorized by watching on TV, or watching on Instagram, is really not what I want to do when I know what has to go into it.’
Hester Tinti-Kane: Right. So, the idea of testing and trying and then pivoting in another direction is also valuable for students.
Mildred García: Extremely valuable. We keep on reading all these reports saying that, “we are preparing students for jobs that we cannot even imagine today.” So, we have to teach students not only to think about their careers, but to be flexible, to understand that they have to continuously learn, that they may get this degree, but that they have to keep thinking about growing and learning, because jobs are changing.
Hester Tinti-Kane: And it almost seems like higher education, and the opportunity for higher education, is to provide that love of learning, that curiosity, so that they do become accustomed to the fact that, as you’re saying, after graduation, it’s not like learning is over. You’re going to have to continually learn in order to keep up and become marketable in the workforce.
Mildred García: One of the things I said throughout my three presidencies. I said, “no student comes to college to fail. And let’s remember they come to college because they want a job. It is us that makes them fall in love with learning.”
Mildred García: You know, I think the value of education is so important. It’s not only a private good. It’s a public good. We need individuals who will be our community leaders. We need individuals who will vote. We need individuals who will care about social issues, and be able to do that because they have a career that is helping them support their families, yes. But that they also are contributing to lifting the country. It is what our democracy is all about. The fear that I hear of the public speaking about, “oh, maybe higher ed it is not important.” I think it’s a really, really tragic statement and a dangerous statement, because we need to continue to let people know that they must educate and be prepared for a world that is changing so rapidly that high school or a four-year degree is not enough.
Hester Tinti-Kane: Well, thank you very much for your time today. It’s really been a pleasure speaking with you.
Mildred García: Thank you so much, Hester. Great meeting you.
Hester Tinti-Kane: Great to meet you, too.
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