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The future of higher education means transforming to match diverse student needs

Updated: Feb 14, 2022


Written By: Julianne Liu and Carolyn Dennis | Student Coalition on Higher Education

This year’s graduation ceremonies mark the end of an academic year that was filled with strife, resilience, and ultimately transformation, from learning models to the value of higher education. As leaders prepare for the next year and beyond, they need to continue transforming to match the students of today. To thrive in the future, institutions can center their value proposition around the wealth of the diverse identities held by students who are not a monolith, dataset, or business venture. Doing this well requires an intersectional approach that centers students in communications and decision making.

Student bodies are more diverse today than ever, and they will become increasingly so. In “Today’s Student” the Lumina Foundation reports that most modern higher education students are “non traditional” in at least one sense:

37% of college students are now 25 or older,

46% are first generation,

64% of students work full-time, and

49% are financially independent from their parents.

These statistics speak to our unique experiences and identities.

For Carolyn—the oldest daughter of six kids in a blue-collar family—there simply was no money for college. She joined the workforce straight out of high school and soon, “saving” for college was sidetracked by saving for a car, a wedding, a house. Then, the need to balance being a full-time employee and a mom crowded out the edges college might squeeze into. She ultimately enrolled in community college 20 years after graduating high school and is now pursuing a bachelor’s at the state flagship university. As a first-generation college student and a rural citizen 1.5 hours from campus, she is dedicated to accomplishing her life-long goal of a college degree.

Julianne is a child of Chinese diaspora and has spent much of her life chasing the “American dream” while reckoning with her own liminal and marginalized identity. Thanks to her family’s legacy of sacrifice and hard work and many scholarships, Julianne embodies many characteristics of the “traditional” college student: directly attending university after high school, living and working on campus, participating in extracurricular activities, and making friends and connections along the way. However, Julianne's journey since has been far from smooth. She has endured microaggressions and suffered from racial battle fatigue, all the while enrolled in one and a half times her university's full-time courseload and job searching in a devastating market.

Together, we represent two different types of students within standard higher-ed labels: one non-traditional and the other very much so. Like us, Today’s Students are a diverse group with complex lives, dreams, and aspirations. We are not outliers, nor are we indivisible under a single student label. To thrive in the future, higher education must make space for the nuances of our different paths.

Intersectionality is a key part of supporting Today’s Students. Kimberlé Crenshaw, a scholar, educator, and luminary who popularized the framework, explains intersectionality as “a metaphor for understanding the ways that multiple forms of inequality or disadvantage sometimes compoundand that this compounding creates “obstacles that often are not understood within conventional ways of thinking.” She shares that understanding the complex relationships between race, gender, sexuality, and other identity markers contributes to a better understanding of what inequity and inequality look like and how they are created. Importantly, an intersectional approach also leads to understanding one another better as human beings and making each other feel seen and heard.

Unfortunately, many institutions have dismissed or fumbled their attempts to meaningfully apply an intersectional approach. Frequently, campus events, resources, and outreach target just one type of student, leaving others feeling unseen and wondering if they belong. At times, Carolyn has felt squeezed out due to the emphasis on the social life, difficult to engage in with the myriad demands on her time. Julianne has also felt unseen and overly seen in other areas of her college experience, such as being pointedly voluntold to share information on her cultural customs in discussions or asked to speak on behalf of an entire continent. Rather than placing the burden on individual students to reach out, institutional decision makers should create a culture that recognizes and values intersectionality.

Institutions can also support Today’s Students by being more transparent and communicative. The pandemic has strained existing communication between students and administrators and made forming new ties more difficult. Diverse students in particular evidence a desire for stronger communication practices: surveys included in the MAPS dashboard show that students identifying as Black, Asian, or Latinx are more likely to want to hear regularly from their college or university and that students identifying with more than one racial group are less satisfied with institutional communication.

Finally, institutions can create belonging for Today’s Students by developing new inclusive structures for decision making. At times, it feels as though administrators consult students only after a decision is made or only seek input from those in student leadership positions, who often are not fully representative of the unique needs of a diverse and increasingly non-traditional student body. With the changing face of the student body, now is the time for administrators to innovate with students on new and improved ways to communicate, show transparency, and achieve co-creation. Without thoughtful attention, these disconnects will likely only worsen in the post-pandemic world and can pose serious challenges to the relevance of traditional higher education institutions.

As institutions prepare for the next academic year, now is the time to continue transforming for Today’s Students. We see a clear pathway for this: Administrators must open the channel for dialogue with students, then actually listen closely to our stories and act upon them while involving us in the process. Institutions should also develop solutions that are equity oriented, rather than basing decisions on an outdated definition of “traditional.” Administrators can take heart in the fact that students are empathetic to the efforts required to honor intersectionality and strong communication. All they need to do to harness that energy is to listen deeply and act on those insights. As Today’s Students, we are ready and waiting.

Julianne Liu is a recent graduate from the University of Utah with Honors degrees in French and Environmental and Sustainability Studies. She is passionate about community, justice-based learning, and meaningful representation of liminal and marginalized identities.

Carolyn Dennis is a wife and mother, balancing her return to school while working full time. She is a student at the University of Utah, pursuing a degree in Political Science.


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