Today’s ‘Typical College Student’ Isn’t Who You Think It Is

typical college student

Tousled hair, funny T-shirt and ill-fitting jeans, hung over from the night before.

Ponytail, leggings and Uggs, texting her six BFFs about the guy she’s “talking to.”

That’s probably who comes to mind when you think of a “typical college student.” But the truth, according to a recent report from Lumina Foundation, is different.

One example? Only 13 percent of students live on campus  far from the rowdy dorm life portrayed in pop culture.

Here are some other surprising findings about today’s college population and advice on what to do if you don’t fit the stereotypical mold.

Meet the ‘typical college student’

Lumina Foundation is a private organization that seeks to expand the availability of post-secondary learning opportunities to all students.

For its report on “Today’s Reality,” it pulled data from a variety of sources, including the Pew Research Center and the Institute for Higher Education Policy.

Its conclusion: “The vision most of us have of typical college students — 18-year-olds on campus full time — is wrong.”

Here are some of the most surprising findings:

  • 38 percent are older than 25.
  • 26 percent are raising children.
  • 42 percent live near or below poverty.
  • 40 percent attend school part time.

Not exactly the cast of “Pitch Perfect” or “Stomp the Yard,” is it?

No, but today’s post-secondary education system still caters to the students of those movies — not to the students of reality — by requiring you to attend classes in person, assuming you’ll live in dorms, and, most of the time, not offering child care options.

That might be why 38 percent of students with additional financial, work, and family obligations leave school within the first year, according to Lumina. And they could end up saddled with student loan debt without the benefits of a degree.

“If we want outcomes for today’s students to change,” stated the foundation, “we must change the way higher ed is delivered to provide all students the support they need to thrive.”

How to manage college if you’re not a ‘typical student’

Although Lumina’s study is targeted at policymakers and educational institutions, it also shows the rest of us that “nontraditional” has become the norm.

If you’re a nontraditional student — because you have kids, are struggling financially, or are attending school part time while you work — here are a few survival tips.

1. Choose your school and major carefully

For those of you who haven’t yet started school, choose carefully.

Look for schools with flexible schedules — especially ones that cater to students like you. If you’re a parent, for example, try to find a school that offers child care or family housing.

Online programs from nonprofit universities are a great choice too. For the most part, it’s wise to avoid for-profit schools, which have a reputation for preying on nontraditional students, leaving them burdened with loans they can’t pay back.

Graduates of nonprofits leave with an average debt of $25,550, for example, while graduates of for-profits have an average debt of $39,950. Additionally, the graduation rate at public schools is more than double (59 percent) the graduation rate at for-profit schools (23 percent).

In addition to where you’ll study, what you’ll study also deserves some careful thought. Pick a major in a growing field that offers a good return on investment (ROI). Or if learning a skilled trade is a better fit for your future, don’t shy away from trade schools.

2. Be cautious with your loans

It can be tempting to take out lots of student loans, especially if you don’t earn much money, but it’s important to be cautious.

The average student loan debt payment is $351 per month. If that’s not in your budget, then you should calculate what your payments will be — before you take out any loans.

For a general idea, check out the following examples using our monthly student loan payment calculator and the current undergraduate student loan interest rate of 4.45%.

Here’s what you’d pay per month and the total amount of interest you’d pay over 10 years if you took out:

  • $10,000: $103 per month, $2,408 in interest
  • $25,000: $258 per month, $6,019 in interest
  • $50,000: $517 per month, $12,039 in interest
  • $75,000: $775 per month, $18,058 in interest

When the money’s imaginary, the jump from $10,000 to $25,000 might not seem so bad, but it’ll more than double your monthly payments when you finish (even if you don’t graduate).

So, if you don’t get the financial aid package you need, negotiate with the financial aid office. You might be able to get some of those loans turned into grants you don’t have to pay back.

3. Apply for scholarships

Instead of taking out a mountain of loans, seek scholarships specific to your situation. For example, here are some options for nontraditional students, student parents, and single moms.

You also can look for employers that help with college costs. Famous examples include Starbucks, which offers full tuition coverage for an online bachelor’s degree at Arizona State University, and Verizon, which offers up to $8,000 per year in tuition assistance.

4. Look into subsidized child care

For student parents, one of the biggest obstacles to getting a college education is a lack of affordable child care.

If you don’t have family support, look to your institution. Some four-year universities, including these 40, offer child care. Some community colleges do too; the states with the highest percentages, according to the American Association of University Women (AAUW) are Delaware, Nevada, Rhode Island, New York, and Maryland.

Image credit: AAUW

You also can seek help through federal programs such as Head Start, which offers pre-K care to low-income families, or the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG), which funds state-subsidized child care.

For CCDBG programs, each state has its own qualifications, including the number of hours you must work or the number of classes you must take. You can glance at this NPR article to see what your state requires.

If you take only one thing away from this Lumina Foundation study, let it be the fact that you’re not alone.

More and more students differ from the traditional image. Hopefully, our government and higher education institutions will realize it soon. Until then, use the resources above to help you make it through.

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