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As College Enrollment Declines, Colleges Should Help Non-Traditional Applicants

Our [misguided] education policy in the United States, including here in Texas, is that every high school graduate should go to college. However, as the job market slowly improves it turns out that college enrollment of recent high school graduates is actually on the decline, reports the Bureau of Labor Statistics, likely due to the fact that 18-year-old high school graduates can find jobs again. This trend could put tremendous pressure on colleges and universities that have taken advantage of the Great Recession, and its artificially-buoyed demand for higher education, to grow and expand.

When the economy was in the dumps young people preferred campus life, even if they had to pay for it with student loans, to near-guaranteed unemployment. Governments, briefly, counteracted the recession by maintaining, and even boosting, education spending. Now, almost five years out from the depth of the Great Recession, government coffers are drained and student loans are looking like a worse and worse deal. Is it any surprise that fewer high school graduates are rushing to enroll?

Despite all my criticism of higher education and K-12 policy, I do believe that it is far better to have a college education than not. I know that many of the high school graduates who immediately choose work over college will eventually want to return to the classroom. Here in west Texas, working in the oil field is tough and draining. The money is good...but do you want to be roughnecking at fifty?

To help society and their own bottom lines, Texas colleges and universities, and indeed colleges and universities nationwide, need to look to adopt admission, enrollment, and academic policies more friendly to non-traditional applicants. My wife is a nontraditional student at a public college here in Texas and, despite liking many things about campus, has struggled with some scheduling and academic issues.

For example, colleges and universities should attempt to schedule more basic classes during evening hours, have more entry-level courses geared toward nontraditional students, and have admissions and enrollment policies less governed by high school transcripts. A common complaint from nontraditional students is that many professors and administrators seem to assume that everyone lives on-campus and is a full-time student with no outside obligations.

As a high school teacher, I have to acknowledge that many of my students have obligations outside the classroom and adjust my lessons and homework expectations accordingly. From what I hear, many college instructors do not. Making an effort to keep nontraditional students in the loop could help many colleges and universities maintain, or even boost, student enrollment and avoid layoffs or cutting programs.

Nontraditional students can be among the most dedicated, hardworking, and intelligent college students out there. Unfortunately, they are frequently overlooked. Now, out of financial necessity, colleges and universities may be forced to acknowledge their importance, which will be to the benefit of everyone. Texas should lead the way.

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