This commentary originally appeared in The Monitor on March 30, 2015.
College isn’t what it used to be. The typical college student is no longer someone who has just graduated high school, lives on or near campus as a “full-time student,” maybe works part-time and graduates four years later still listed as a dependent on his or her parents’ tax returns.
Instead, more than half of college students are “nontraditional,” a category that includes such students as those over age 25, those who work full-time, single parents, caregivers and those without a high school diploma.
Often, they have years of military or workplace experience. Many are among the more than 1.3 million Texans with some college credit, but no degree.
In short, they aren’t the kind of students we imagine as “typical.”
As adults who must juggle their educations with the daily demands of their families and careers, nontraditional students aren’t interested in that self-indulgent circus we call the “college experience.” Their objective: get a degree as quickly and cheaply as possible and then move on with life.
After spending years in the shadow of the “typical undergrad” stereotype, nontraditional students are finally receiving attention. In 2012, Texas A&M Commerce partnered with South Texas College and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) to launch the Texas Affordable Baccalaureate Program (TABP). For many nontraditional students, the TABP represents the future of higher education.
In 2011, former Gov. Rick Perry challenged Texas colleges and universities to design a degree that would cost students just $10,000. Amid ever-climbing tuition, Perry’s challenge was seen as a pipedream, with much of the higher education establishment still skeptical of Perry’s goal today (in Texas, the average four-year degree costs $46,800).
The former governor’s audacious target relies on the promise of two emerging cost-saving techniques — online learning and competency testing — that supporters say will revolutionize education and that detractors say are just a passing fad.
Fast forward to today. The TABP’s inaugural student cohort at Texas A&M Commerce just completed its first year of the program. Through an innovative application of online learning and competency testing, the TABP has whittled the cost of a four-year degree for an incoming freshman with no prior college experience down to a respectable $13,500.
Perry’s $10,000 target still stands, but thanks to innovators like Texas A&M Commerce, we are getting closer.
Perhaps the greatest victory of the fledgling TABP — its pioneering implementation of the emerging technologies described earlier — brings us back to the story of Texas’ forgotten nontraditional students. Online learning and competency testing, when used correctly, are pretty good at cutting costs for the typical undergrad.
But they are a godsend for nontraditional students.
Online courses are indispensable for students who have to fit their class schedules around full-time jobs, children, or both. With competency testing —which offers students a fast-track to course credit in areas where they have already been trained — a nontraditional student with some prior college experience and several years of workplace or military training can receive an affordable baccalaureate through the TABP in as little as one year, and for as little as $4,500.
As the world around us changes in response to emerging technology, the higher education system cannot maintain immunity from disruption. And as more careers restrict upward mobility to individuals with a bachelor’s degree, it’s time for us to recognize that the 21st century student has a job, dependents and no time to waste on the “college experience.”
The traditional university will never fully disappear, but expect to see more pioneering programs like TABP emerge as schools begin to recognize higher education’s new, nontraditional reality.
Trevor McGuire is a policy analyst with the Center for Higher Education at the Texas Public Policy Foundation in Austin.