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Three college students studying together in a library

Responding to the needs of today’s college student … together

Todd Penner

How would you describe a typical college student? For many of us, what comes to mind is a young adult continuing their education straight from high school. They’re enrolled full-time and living on campus, with few responsibilities outside of school. Although upwards of 75 percent of today’s college students no longer match this profile, it’s an enduring image, and no wonder: this is the student our colleges were designed to serve and have been serving for centuries.

It’s time to refresh that mental image since the typical college student has changed. Efforts nationwide have focused on increasing college access for students from disadvantaged backgrounds who have been historically underrepresented. Today, Pell grant recipients make up nearly one-third of undergraduates, a share that has increased almost 10 percentage points in the past decade, and one-third of students are the first in their family to attend college.

For colleges, this represents a significant shift in the day-to-day challenges their students are facing and the support they need to be successful. Financial barriers and academic readiness are just the start. Some of these students have no example from their families to follow, and no one in their personal networks who can help them understand the process or guide them towards success. While the numbers of low-income and first-generation students are large, they may feel alone in navigating the bumps in the road and are often lacking a support system. There are few structures in place to help students navigate these new challenges, and it shows – only one in five low-income students will graduate in six years.

Many colleges are doing their best to adapt to the needs of today’s student, some quite successfully, but most colleges lack the necessary funding or know-how to help these students succeed. Budgets are under pressure as public funding has dropped over time. While it’s true that potential solutions may involve a shift in funding, rather than needing additional funds altogether, colleges seldom have the available money to pilot new, unproven approaches to student support and innovate their existing models.

Here’s the good news…

They don’t have to meet this challenge on their own. Along with colleges, philanthropy and community-based organizations (CBOs) also have a role to play in increasing college graduation rates among disadvantaged students.

In philanthropy, we are able to take risks, funding new and innovative approaches to advancing student outcomes. Investing in R&D-style funding means accepting that some projects won’t be fruitful, but philanthropy should be willing to demonstrate what works and what doesn’t, and the silver lining is that we can learn as much from projects that fail as those that succeed.

What makes this work conceivable to begin with is usually the knowledge and experience of successful CBOs that focus on college completion. Our nonprofit partners are serving disadvantaged students every day, so by building on this foundation, they can imagine what’s possible and pinpoint potential solutions to evaluate through the students they support. As these college success organizations put ideas into action, they deliver proofs of concept while also creating a meaningful impact on individual lives.

Colleges don’t have to start from scratch to solve this problem. But they do need to start somewhere – with a commitment to creating change. With supportive leadership and sustainable funding, colleges should implement proven interventions to keep students on track. That translates to millions of students receiving the support they need to succeed in college, ensuring disadvantaged students have the same opportunity to reach graduation as their peers.

Together, it’s time to redesign the college experience. It’s on all of us to be a part of the solution to ensure the graduation of low-income and first-generation college students.