Characteristics of the Class of 2020

Whenever I can find a good book or research paper on the topic of distance education, I will usually obtain a copy in order to see if there’s a trend or idea that is worth noting or pursuing.  For a few weeks, I had noted the ad in The Chronicle of Higher Education touting their new report, “The College of 2020:  Students.”  I had to pay for the report, so I’m sure that the Chronicle wouldn’t like it if I provided a blow-by-blow description of its contents.  However, I think that they would not mind someone touting the report on their blog, so my thoughts are summarized below.  (Those interested in purchasing the report can do so at the following site:  

Chronicle Research Services released the first of a three part report last month that describes the characteristics they predict that we will see in college graduates of the class of 2020.  The fundamental themes of the report are that as the class of 2020 (today’s first graders) enter their college years, their demands on colleges and universities will be drastically different from what students have previously expected, forcing higher educational institutions to reconsider their curriculums, formats, and basic characteristics.

Even today’s youngest students have integrated technologies into their everyday lives.  The authors, Martin Van Der Werf and Grant Sabatier, note that approximately 50 percent of middle and high school students surveyed indicated that they would use mobile devices and online technologies to communicate with classmates outside of the classroom, conduct research for projects, and engage in proactive learning strategies if provided the opportunity.  This gives credence to the notion that these students feel hindered by school systems that have not yet embraced such technologies as supplemental learning and teaching tools.

As colleges and universities struggle under burdensome economic conditions, they will be forced to find new ways of attracting students.  In addition, if these institutions are to increase enrollments, middle and high schools must address the rising drop-out rates among students at an early age.  Citing the report, “Diplomas Count: School to College: Can State P-16 Councils Ease the Transition?” the authors note that “’nearly 1.23 million members of the public high-school class of 2008 will fail to graduate with a diploma.  That amounts to a loss of 6,829 students from the U.S. graduation pipeline per day.’”  In addition to addressing the issues associated with increasing high school dropout rates, colleges and universities will be faced with the task of educating students and their parents about the means by which students can achieve college educations, both academically and financially.

The demographic makeup of the student population in the United States is continuing to change in dramatic ways.  The growing number of minority students enrolling in public middle and high schools in the United States means that colleges and universities must find more creative and compelling ways of drawing them to their institutions.  The report notes that income differences between the various minority groups will impact the college choices of students from those groups. 

Interestingly, the report contends that many students are inadequately prepared for college curriculums.  One solution to this particular problem that the report provides is developing a five year curriculum in colleges and universities with the first year being remedial and providing students with the skills to be able to successfully complete subsequent college courses.  This seems somewhat contradictory; if students are forced by tough economic times to strongly consider college costs in making their choices, adding an additional year would mean adding additional costs.  Ideally, our college schools of education should work more with local K-12 systems to provide guidance on what works best to prepare students for college while in high school.

Our definition of traditional college students is that they fall in the 18 to 24-year-old age range.  The authors note that is changing and institutions of higher education must develop ways of attracting older students if they are to succeed in the decades to come.  Van Der Werf and Sabatier write that “in 2000, 60 percent of college students were ages 18 to 24, and 21.1 percent were ages 25 to 34.  In 2016, 58.8 percent will be 18 to 24, and 24 percent will be 25 to 34.” 

The authors have provided substantial support for their claim that for-profit educational institutions are leading the charge in revamping the world of higher education to suit the needs of today’s students.  For example, they contend that “computers will be even more central to the educations of younger students now rising through elementary and high schools.”  They cite the findings of the “Speak Up 2008” report published by Project Tomorrow which conclude that today’s K-12 students are “’in fact a ‘Digital Advance Team’ illuminating the path for how to leverage emerging technologies effectively for teaching and learning.’”  According to the report, for-profit institutions are far more likely to provide distance education courses to students, allowing flexibility for students to pursue careers, families, and other opportunities while continuing their educations.  Thanks to this flexibility, for-profit institutions are able to attract students older than the traditional college student, benefitting from the fact that more adults are returning to college to supplement their skills in order to advance their careers in an increasingly competitive job market. 

Data cited in the report indicates that between 2000 and 2007, “enrollment in distance-education courses nearly quadrupled, from 3,077,000 to 12,153,000.”  Arguably more “nimble” than their non-profit counterparts, for-profit institutions have managed to develop a market niche in the higher education industry that has allowed for their overwhelming growth in enrollments.  Whereas more traditional institutions struggle to integrate new and existing technologies in the classroom, technologies that students are already and will increasingly expect and demand, the for-profit educational sector has responded more quickly with the implementation of innovative and modern technology in the classroom.  Citing a 2008 paper published by Harvard Business School professor (and, author of Disrupting Class), Clayton M. Christensen, the report states that “by 2019 half of courses in Grades 9 to 12 will be delivered online.” 

K-12 students in many states are already enjoying the benefits afforded by online education.  The Florida Virtual School, for example, enrolled some 63,000 Florida students for the 2007-08 school year.  According to Van Der Werf and Sabatier, “all 16 states represented by the Southern Regional Education Board now have a virtual public school at some stage of development.” 

Undoubtedly, the most elite schools in America will continue to attract significant numbers of applicants; they have successfully developed a brand and reputation that will allow them to weather the current financial storm.  For-profit colleges will also remain strong in the face of economic uncertainty and will surely gain in popularity.  Other colleges and universities, however, particularly those without well-known names and brand recognition, will struggle to attract students who will continue to make demands for innovative uses of technologies and flexibility in learning formats as they make their choices in which colleges to attend. 

While some of these publications are available to the public, the report was a worthwhile purchase in that it provided greater focus to the issue of what to do to prepare for future college students.  Indeed, as described in a May 31 article in The Boston Globe, the “traditional” college path is no longer the norm.  Four-year graduation rates are mythical, according to Neil Swidley, author of the article.  At the most elite private schools, four-year degree completion rates remain steady.  At other schools, however, the four-year degree is quickly turning into six years or even longer.  According to Swidley’s article, the number of adults who took the “’traditional’” path through college, receiving their bachelors degrees within four years, is less than ten percent, based on data from 2005.  In short, the definition of “traditional” is changing both in the way we characterize students and in the path we expect them to take to earning their degrees.  If higher education is to meet President Obama’s goal of bringing America back to its preeminent position as a global leader in college graduation rates, the industry as a whole must realize that fact.

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence