The 21st Century Student: Can American Colleges Deliver?

man with red hair and tan blazer hold pieces of paper
Laura Stocker

Donald Heller hosts Research Unplugged

"There is no single type of student today," said Don Heller. "Twenty-first century undergraduates are very diverse in many ways." On Wednesday, April 21, Heller—professor in the College of Education and director of the University's Center for the Study of Higher Education—was the final speaker in this spring's Research Unplugged series, and led a lively talk on the trends and challenges facing the nation's higher education system.

"When you think of a college student," Heller said, "you probably think of someone 18 to 23 years of age, going away to college after senior year of high school, who plans on completing a degree in four years." This description is no longer the norm, he stated. Of the 20 million undergraduates in the U.S., one-third are over the age of 25, 37 percent are part-time students, and 42 percent are enrolled in community college.

"Fifty-seven percent of undergraduates are women," Heller pointed out. "And women are also more likely to complete their bachelor's degree than men."

Research suggests that the "Millennial Generation"—defined as those born since 1982—has certain attributes that make it vastly different than generations before. "They are multi-taskers, technology-savvy, rapid communicators, and more challenging of authority," explained Heller. Universities have had to learn to cope with some of these characteristics. "Colleges have spent a lot of time and money infusing technology—such as laptops and wireless networks—into the undergraduate experience."

He added, "Prospective students also face much more competition than before," as universities have lowered acceptance rates in hopes of bumping up national rankings. "My colleagues and I joke that we wouldn't have gotten into our alma maters if we tried today."

Undergraduates face much higher tuition costs now than even a decade ago. "Of the undergraduate group, half borrow money at some point to pay for tuition," said Heller, "The average student debt is around $25,000, but it is not unusual for some to be $50,000 in debt." The top reasons why institutions have become so expensive, he noted, are the labor-intensive nature of the industry, and increased.

"College is seen as much more of an investment today," Heller added. "Students are more focused on attending college to make money and get a job rather than to better society. They are more concerned with skills and credentials than becoming culturally astute about worldly issues."

Economic and societal pressures Heller noted, have made it less likely for today's students to complete their degrees. "The U.S. has the highest college enrollment rate in the world, but the flip-side is that not as many students actually finish," he said. Thirty-six percent of undergraduates who start a four-year degree do not graduate. "They may not be academically prepared, or may be at the wrong college for the wrong reasons, or perhaps should not be enrolled in college in the first place," he said.

Although universities have done well at coping with the changing undergraduate profile, Heller said, there is room for continued improvement. "When choosing a college, there needs to be less emphasis on certain aspects—the ranking, quality of dorms, intercollegiate sports—and more focus on the actual academics and learning environment," he suggested. "Universities also need to do a better job controlling costs, or more and more students are going to be priced out of an education."

For more about Donald Heller, read on...

Last Updated April 27, 2010