Nontraditional students are the new majority

Photo by John Jordan

Texans working toward a college degree often face the stark reality of crippling student loan debt. With more than $1 trillion in student loan debt nationwide and data showing more Americans are falling behind on their payments, student debt has become a centerpiece of economic discussions from kitchen tables to the halls of Congress and the presidential campaign trail.

Our ability to manage the debt crisis is a considerable concern for state and federal officials developing policies that could impact or alter accessibility and affordability to higher education in Texas and across the U.S.

But has the student loan debt crisis clouded Texans’ view of the value and importance of higher education? A new statewide poll suggests it has not. 

According to the WGU Texas Higher Education Poll, Texans share overwhelmingly positive views of postsecondary education, which are not weakened by widespread concerns about increasing student debt. Among those Texans who think that student loan debt is a major problem, 93 percent still view obtaining a postsecondary degree as important.

What’s driving that optimism?

A majority of Texans — 94 percent — view getting a college degree as important and essential for getting a good job.  Numerous studies have shown college graduates earn more than those who do not complete their degree.

Texans recognize that college degrees lead to better jobs, an improved quality of life and a sense of pride. However, the data reveals that substantial roadblocks stand in the way of obtaining a degree for many Texans. It is one thing to see the value of higher education but quite another to be able to access it and achieve the dream of a degree and the fruits that flow from that accomplishment.

Seventy-six percent of Texans say cost is the leading obstacle to obtaining a degree, while family and work responsibilities were cited as significant challenges by 71 percent and 69 percent of Texans, respectively.

What Texans identify as primary obstacles to higher education – cost, family responsibility and job obligations – are indicative of the changing face and demographics of college students today. Nontraditional students are a new majority. These students are not represented among the 18- to 24-year-old cohort moving into college dorms across our state in recent weeks.

Only a minority of students today enroll in college immediately after high school, pursue college on a full-time basis and successfully complete a degree in four or five years. In 2011, only 29 percent of students enrolled in a four-year public or non-profit college fit the “traditional” mold.

As nontraditional students juggle full-time jobs, family responsibilities and limited budgets, access to affordable, flexible higher education options is increasingly imperative.

We also see that Texans without a college degree are less likely to see their current job as a career as compared to those with a degree. Thirty-four percent of Texans view their current job as a “stepping stone” or as a means to “get by.” Of those, 67 percent said they need more education and training to get the kind of job or career they want.  Even so, the survey found that more than half of respondents have no plans to return to school. 

How higher education evolves and adapts to meet the needs of today’s diverse student population will be critical to Texas’ long-term ability to satisfy workforce demands and remain prosperous and competitive.

The Texas Legislature has explored an initiative to extend state financial aid to students enrolled in competency-based programs offered by accredited colleges and universities. While competency-based education (CBE) was pioneered by WGU Texas, more institutions, including the University of Texas System, are expanding offerings in CBE to meet the needs of their students.

Expanding state financial aid to these students is a cost-effective way to serve more students, and it's something WGU Texas and our employer and business partners like the Texas Association of Business hope state leaders embrace.

The need for higher education is clear. The perceived and real value in higher education is pronounced.

We need to meet Texas students where they are in life and work, and deliver higher education options that reflect the diverse needs of today’s students.

Disclosure: WGU Texas and the Texas Association of Business are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. Find a complete list of donors and sponsors here

Veronica Vargas Stidvent

Chancellor, WGU Texas