AAC&U News, November 2018
Facts & Figures

Misconceptions about Today’s College Students

According to American pop culture, the typical college student is just out of high school, attends a four-year institution full time, resides on or near campus, has no children, and has extra money for clothing, travel, and alcohol.

The reality is vastly different. Many students are older, live off campus, have children, and live at or below the poverty line (see figures 1 and 2).

A recent report from Higher Learning Advocates includes results from a survey that asked simple true or false questions of two different demographics: a representative sample of one thousand Americans and a group of “education insiders” including policy makers, politicians, and government staff working on higher education policy; leaders of higher education institutions; and leaders of associations, organizations, and think tanks working on higher education issues. According to the report, Americans have little understanding of today’s college students or the challenges they face. Raising awareness of the realities facing today’s college students is vital to providing the educational, financial, and personal support students need to succeed.

Figure 1. 

F&F Figure 1.png

Most Americans Know Who Students Are and Where They Study

  • Most Americans knew that more than one-third (36 percent) of college students attend two-year institutions. Younger respondents between eighteen and twenty-four were the least likely (64 percent) to know this while respondents between fifty and sixty-four years old were the most likely (81 percent). Nearly all insiders (94 percent) answered correctly.
  • More than half (57 percent) of Americans recognized that 41 percent of students are twenty-five years old or older.
  • While 62 percent of Americans thought that a majority of first-year students live on campus, just a “tiny fraction” (13 percent) actually does, the report said.
  • The survey’s question about first-generation students garnered more correct answers from the general public than any other question. When asked if it was true that three in ten college students (34 percent) were the first in their family to attend college, 81 percent of Americans and 84 percent of education insiders answered correctly.
  • “Picture an 18-year-old from a middle-class background who gets support from parents and goes to school full time,” one education insider said. “That is probably the experience of most of us in the policymaking community. But that is increasingly not representative of a college student today.”

Figure 2.

F&F Figure 2.png

Fewer Americans Know about Equity Gaps in Graduation Rates

  • Most American respondents were unaware of achievement gaps between different racial and ethnic groups in higher education. “When asked whether Hispanic and African American college students attending four-year public institutions were less likely to complete their degree than their white peers, a majority [51 percent] of respondents answered ‘no,’” the report said, while just 47 percent said yes. “The truth is that these students graduate at rates 10 to 20 percentage points lower than their white peers.”
  • However, most respondents (62 percent) who had earned a bachelor’s degree answered the question about achievement gaps correctly, while just 38 percent of respondents sixty-five years old and over did so. This fact was universally known among higher education insiders: 100 percent answered the question correctly.

Knowledge of Students’ Financial and Family Situation

  • Just 37 percent of Americans knew that “more than half of today’s college students are defined as financially independent, rather than depending on parents or family members’ incomes,” the report said. Fifty-five percent of students qualify as financially independent.
  • However, 72 percent of Americans answered correctly that four in ten independent college students (42 percent) live at or below the poverty line.
  • At least 70 percent of respondents in all age groups “knew that the majority of college students work while learning,” the report said. Americans aged eighteen to twenty-four were the most likely to answer correctly, matching the insiders group with 84 percent responding correctly.
  • While 26 percent of college students are parents, just 64 percent of the public answered a question about this statistic correctly. Nearly all insiders (95 percent) answered correctly.
  • “In many ways, even though [we have] older students, students working, our programs are still designed with full-time younger students in mind,” one education insider wrote in the survey. “Financial aid programs do not do a good job supporting today’s students.”

The images in this article are reproduced from the survey report, "Today's Students: Pop Culture vs. Reality," by permission from Higher Learning Advocates.

About AAC&U News

AAC&U News is written and edited by Ben Dedman. If you have questions or comments about the newsletter's contents, please e-mail dedman@aacu.org.

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