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The Faces of Higher Education: Adult Student


This is the second post in an occasional series on the Faces of Higher Education. These are the stories of students, faculty, and administrators within the United States Higher Education system. Each person will be presented through interviews, profiles, or stories. So often when thinking about higher education we look at statistics, trends, and institutions, but rarely do we look at the people.  The faces and stories within higher education often highlight the issues better than any chart or data set. Here’s one.

Patrick Cunningham is a 48-year-old law school student at a top-ten law school. After a successful career as both a journalist and freelance writer, Patrick decided to go back to school. During my hour-long conversation with him at Chicago O’Hare international airport last month, I learned that his decision to go back to school was to put it simply, very complicated. Patrick wanted a new career and always had a deep interest in the law, but he also had to decide whether taking on $200,000 of debt at his age with a family was worth it.

“So what are you going to do after you finish, what’s the goal?” I asked.

Patrick said that he didn’t really know and it depends on the week that you ask him. He thinks that he might become a junior associate at a law firm or maybe a researcher. The average starting salary of a first year associate is around $70,000 and the average age is far below 48. My natural reaction is to think that he should already have a plan when investing that much time and money in his degree. But I realize for Patrick it’s not about having a plan – it’s about testing himself. It’s about expansion and the power of new beginnings. It doesn’t have to make sense.

“So how do you like it,” I ask.

Patrick goes off on an eloquent rant about how he is so different than the younger students and that the institution isn’t set up to support a student his age. “I am not meant to be there, this program is not built for me,” he says, referencing his age and family (he has a boy and girl ages 9 and 14). Patrick is amazed at how competitive and conservative the young students are and he is critical of the standard curriculum. He comes across as a man trying to find himself again – looking for some deeper meaning, looking for the right question that will lead to a new revelation. “All the students do what they are supposed to do – no one is questioning anything,” he says.

I can tell that law school has let him down. Patrick expected something else – he didn’t exactly know what, but for some reason the institution, the students, and the experiences haven’t inspired him. I understand that it is complicated. There are so many factors to consider when going back to school at any age and at the end of the day a lot of them won’t be rational. Institutions need to identify and reach out to these students and build them into their culture because I have a feeling that Patrick isn’t finding what he needs because he is outside of it.

One of the many things that excite me about the College of 2020 is that it will be for everyone – we have to think of it as an ideal where the needs of all students will be met. Programs and institutions will cater to an infinite variety of student situations and motivations. Higher education has to evolve to meet the needs to Patrick and others like him, or else its risks not being relevant.


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The Statistics That Matter

Mark Twain popularized the statement: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics.”

But anyone who is planning for what a college will need in 2020 needs to start with these statistics. Okay, they are projections, but the carefully researched and methodical look at 2020 by the National Center for Education Statistics needs to be the starting point for planning by most colleges.

We have written extensively about this in our report, The College of 2020: Students, but these latest statistics re-emphasize some of the trends we identified, and, in some cases sharpen them. They should shake most colleges out of any presumption that the potential student body is a homogenous high-school age kid looking to live on campus and cycle through in four short years. That model, for the most part, is gone forever.

Among the projections of the newly released statistics:

– The greatest growth in enrollment until 2020 will come among those aged 25-34 (21 percent), and the second largest percentage growth in enrollment will be among students aged 35 and over (16 percent). Enrollment among those aged 18-24 will increase by 9 percent.

– Enrollment of part-time students will increase by 16 percent from now until 2020, while enrollment of full-time students will increase by 11 percent.

– Enrollment of graduate students will increase 18 percent, while enrollment of undergraduates will increase by 12 percent.

– Enrollment of Hispanics will increase by 46 percent, and of blacks and Asian/Pacific Islander students by 25 percent. Enrollment of white students will increase by 1 percent.

These damn statistics should figure, at least in a small way, to every planning exercise a college is doing. In many cases, the new faces of the future student body will force colleges to change the way they do things.

You can’t go wrong if you are thinking about how to tailor your programs, your services, and your culture for an older student who has some work and college experience already, is a minority, and is scraping together money and time to take one or two courses at a time. How to reach them and appeal to them is your next job.

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The College of 2020: My Son

I don’t intend to insert myself too often into this blog. I want primarily to pass along good information, and thought-provoking viewpoints.

But I also want to give some background on why this topic is so important to me. You see, my oldest child will graduate from high school in 2020. So when I think about the college of 2020, I am thinking about my son, and his future. I wonder how well his education is preparing him for a digital, hyper-connected future. I am not the only one who wonders about such things.

My son loves TV and movies. He can get on the computer or play Wii just about anytime he wants. But he usually chooses reading or writing. Mostly, he seems to learn well in groups. He put together a movie in summer camp this year with two kids his age, one of whom knew more about online video editing than most adults. The result is a dreamy wistful piece that might be the first item I grab if our house catches fire. And I wonder how his schooling reinforces such meandering? It doesn’t.

It’s easy to get obsessed as a parent about how well even a 9-year-old is prepared for college. But then, I try to step out of that thought process and think more realistically: My son may never go to college. More likely, he will not define college in the same way I did. The college of 2020 will look a lot different, in fact, it won’t be “traditional” college at all. My son is far more likely to go to several colleges before getting a degree, to take part-time classes, to take a class online, to gain credit for work experience. As an artsy kid, he is going to spend a lot of time writing, and needing one-on-one encouragement. It’s a different kind of learning, the kind most colleges today are not very good at. I believe they will get better, or he will find the kind of encouragement, feedback and learning he needs somewhere else.

There is a fairly good chance he will never really identify with an alma mater the way most of us do. He may never set foot in a dorm, or a campus rec center. His lab work, if any, may be entirely virtual. He may never set foot on a campus at all, except for perhaps the day he graduates.

All of these scenarios are an even more likely outcome for his 6-year-old brother.

I have the concerns most parents have. I need my children to know they are supported and loved, I need to expose my kids to travel and as many life experiences as possible, I need to save more for their education.

But I also have optimism about their college educations. I believe that colleges are about to undergo fundamental changes, driven by competition, deep consumer skepticism, the need to cut costs, and by a crying need for increased productivity. The college of 2020 will be a collection of community driven ideas that focus on learning rather than teaching. The implications of those changes are profound, but necessary. The American system of higher education, as it is currently constituted, is simply unsustainable.

I believe that much of this will happen while my children are still children. And I believe they will be better people because of it.

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The Mobile Campus: Stanford App


This is the fourth post in a four part series on The Mobile Campus. This series examines how students are using smart phones and the impact on higher education. To read the first post on mobile application use click here. To read the second post on Foursquare for universities click here. For the third post on iPad textbooks click here.

For the last post in The Mobile Campus series I wanted to focus on university mobile apps.  Several universities have launched mobile applications for their student body, including Penn State, the University of Maryland, and Texas A&M, but none have been as comprehensive and useful as the app and mobile website developed for Stanford University.

It seems fitting that the prestigious university near Silicon Valley would have a good app, but I didn’t expect this many features. The Stanford app literally does everything and contains everything a student could need. There’s a good reason for this; it was developed by a group of Stanford students. Who needs a website? Stanford truly understands the needs of its student population by offering them anything they could need in their pocket. And students love it – the app has over 1400 five star ratings in the iPhone app store. The features speak for themselves. They include:

  • Athletics: View Athletic schedules, scores, news, and events.
  • Balance: Students are able to check their bill and current balance on their account.
  • Courses: Browse and search course descriptions, times, locations, and view your grades when they are available. If a student has a question or wants to get more information on a course, they can contact the professor directly through the app.
  • Directory: A Mobile Campus directory with department, student, and faculty contact information.  If you find a student or professor you need to reach dial them directly with one click or add them to your contacts.
  • Emergency: Access important numbers and report emergencies.
  • Events: Search and keep track of all of the events on the Stanford campus., including concerts and lecture. Users are able to browse events by name, subject, date, or location.
  • Game: Through CreditU students can get points and earn rewards for going to class. This makes college like a game – which is popular in geolocation apps like Foursqaure and Gowalla.
  • Images: Browse and save images from across the Stanford campus
  • Itunes-U: Stream lectures, concerts, and other video and audio.
  • Library: Find library books by call number and see current availability. Users are also able to access other Library resources.
  • Maps: Lost? Search campus buildings by name and see where they are located relative to your own current location. Looking for the bus? The app also includes real-time bus routes and schedules on the map.
  • News: Read about news from all across the Stanford campus. All departments and all sources – from the Daily to the Graduate School of Business.
  • Radio: Listen to the college station KZSU live.
  • Ride: Request a safe ride home from anywhere on campus.
  • Tour: Take a Tour of the Stanford campus.
  • Trivia – What do you know about Stanford?
  • Videos – Access hundreds of hours of Stanford video content from across the university and stream it directly to your phone.

As campuses across the country develop their own apps and mobile websites, they need to look at Stanford’s app as the benchmark. No other institution is meeting students where they on the Web are and responding to student needs like Stanford.

To learn more about Stanford’s mobile initiatives visit

To visit Stanford’s mobile website check out

To download the iStanford app for the iPhone click here.

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