Our traditional image of the college student — the 18-year-old who gets dropped off at the dorm at State U — is steadily becoming a thing of the past. “The ‘new normal’ college student,” says Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell, “is just as likely to be a 24-year-old returning veteran, a 36-year-old single mom, a 50-year-old displaced worker who’s looking to re-skill … that’s the new college-going population.”

The Department of Education (ED) estimates that two-thirds of all new jobs created between now and 2020 are going to require some type of postsecondary degree or certificate. In order to prepare our nation for these jobs on the future, Mitchell advocates, “We need to double down on providing access to the new normal student.”

Serving the strivers

Unlike with high school students, the central issue is less about encouragement and more about supporting the endeavors of adult students, who are usually extremely active and engaged learners.

“These students are strivers,” says Mitchell. “These are adults who have life experience under their belts and they know exactly what they’re going to college for.” Most returning students have military experience or other unique bodies of knowledge that you can’t find anywhere else.

WHY SUPPORT MATTERS: Older students come to college knowing exactly they're after, generally having greater focus, and, according to Mitchell, real-world experiences that improve discussion.


 As a former dean and college president, Mitchell attests to the vibrancy of returning students: “They brought to the classroom a gritty understanding of the real world that improved every discussion that we had.” Because adult students have unique experiences and knowledge and know exactly what they want, we need to cut out the unnecessary work and do our best to actualize and enhance their potential.

The old tuition problem

The first step in serving adult students is reducing the financial burden. The earlier Free Application for Federal Student Aid (available October 1 as opposed to January 1) has helped provide adult students who already have complicated lives with an easier way to get all the financial aid information they need for planning their education.

ED has also created helpful tools like the Financial Aid Shopping Sheet and the College Scorecard to help our nation’s students to find the right school on the right budget, and it’s currently advocating for the first two years of community college — which plays a critical role in adult education — to be free for students.

THE ESSENTIALS: For many choosing to return to school, finances and time are major obstacles, stressing the importance of financial aid acces, as well as eliminating unnecessary coursework.


A tailored curriculum

Another aid to adult students is freeing up time in their busy schedules by eliminating unnecessary coursework. Instead, says Mitchell, we need strong data and intensive, proactive advising to provide a curriculum for students that expedites their goals.

“One of the promising practices has been technology-enabled delivery of instruction,” says Mitchell, “especially around competency-based learning. Adult learners come to higher ed with a lot of knowledge and experience — that’s one of the benefits that they bring — and colleges are getting a lot smarter about certifying that knowledge.”

A national boon

“The bottom line,” says Mitchell, “is that if we want to serve the new normal student, we need to meet them where they are and not ask that they fit themselves into the traditional rubric of higher education.” ED, sate and private institutions need to work together to serve adult students with veteran support, daycare for parents, microloans for supplies and proactive counseling.

And the reason to support returning learners, Mitchell stresses, is their value in strengthening the diverse fabric of our nation. “Our investment in adult learning pays off not only because adult learners who get certificates and degrees earn more but [because] the national economy benefits when we are as aggressive as we can be in providing opportunities for human capital to grow and for Americans to become the best-educated workforce in the world.”