What Is College Today?

Katie Creel

Higher education in the 21st century is a rapidly changing landscape. New technologies, shifting economic realities, and a boom in the college-aged population have altered a world that was once a bastion of predictable traditions. Today’s college experience is likely to take place at least partially online, involve two or more schools before graduation, and take over four years to complete.

A growing number of students today begin their college years at two-year colleges, peaking in 2012 at almost 30 percent of recent high school graduates. One driver of this change is rising college costs that make it necessary to work while attending part time. Junior college, community college, and technical schools also offer the chance for students to bring up grades and knock out required courses before applying to more rigorous four-year institutions.

Which makes sense because traditional four-year undergraduate schools have tightened up admissions requirements so that even some state universities now admit fewer than 10 percent of applicants, the kind of selectivity that was once reserved for the Ivy League. Just as with two-year schools, four-year schools are busting at the seams with the “Echo Boomers” whose tidal wave into the college system will last until at least 2025. More students means more competition, not just for admission, but for scholarships, entrance to popular courses, and, consequently, the ability to graduate on time.

Competing against a crowd of other students is the expected—and sometimes desired—part of the public university experience, where attendance can top out over 50,000 students. While there are advantages to choosing schools with robust graduate school funding for research—such as top flight professors, expensive lab equipment, and richly stocked libraries—large, public universities are not always set up for the undergraduate experience and can end up feeling alienating. While there will be more of everything—clubs, teams, internships, on-campus jobs, resources, facilities, entertainment, and, oh, yeah! classes!—to choose from at a larger school, it is best to look carefully for those large schools that make an effort to cater to undergraduates.

Fortunately, there are many alternatives available, especially among private undergraduate colleges, which are generally much smaller, sometimes under 5,000 students, and can provide excellent faculty-student ratios. Many private undergraduate colleges have large endowments, too, increasing funding options; and with fewer students their flexibility for who to fund and how to fund is much greater. Most importantly, however, the focus of these schools is on undergraduate education and that focus shows, as over half of private undergraduate students graduate in four years, a much higher percentage than any other type of school.

Of course, private schools should not be confused with for-profit universities. For profit schools are not new, but the sector has exploded over the past decade, especially in the distance-learning category.

Not all distance learning is for profit, however; in fact, it’s quite common across all types of colleges today. Over one-quarter of all college students participate in some form of distance learning, and almost 15 percent go to school exclusively online. Even courses that meet in traditional classrooms are likely to require not just electronic homework, but participation in online course components as well.

It’s only the for-profit institutions that require caution. Their graduation rates are dismal—fewer than 20 percent of students graduate in four years. Worse than that, many for-profit universities have been sued by students who were encouraged to borrow heavily for a substandard educational experience.

Even with those concerns, however, for-profit schools are often the best fit for some students. Every student deserves to craft an individualized plan for college, so it’s good that there are more options today than ever before. Once upon a time, college was one size fits all. Today, there is a wide array of options to suit the needs of every student. And, really, isn’t it better that way?