Exploring California’s New Normal Student Population

The state’s higher education system was built on the idea of an 18-year-old student who enrolls in college full-time, immediately after high school. This preconception is reflected in financial aid disbursement, class schedules, and estimated graduation timelines. However, this outdated, “traditional” model no longer serves California’s reality. Recent trends show fewer high school graduates go directly to college and more adults over the age of 25 are attempting to return. As a result, today’s educators, administrators, and policymakers must be intentional about creating an inclusive experience for older adults, parents, first-generation students, and their other “nontraditional” peers because these students are California’s new normal. In fact, 30 percent of California State University students and 41 percent of University of California undergraduates are first-generation, and 50 percent of California’s community college students are 25 years or older.  

...Today’s educators, administrators, and policymakers must be intentional about creating an inclusive experience for older adults, parents, first-generation students, and their other “nontraditional” peers because these students are California’s new normal.

While California public institutions’ demographics reflect richly diverse student bodies with different needs and hurdles to overcome, our postsecondary system has not made enough progress to provide adequate support for these groups. The current system overlooks the new-normal population’s experiences, consequently pushing out potential students who could significantly benefit from a certificate or degree. In the coming weeks, California Competes will highlight some of these nontraditional student groups and detail how current policies impact their potential for postsecondary success.

To begin, we will review pressing issues facing incarcerated students, including affordability and access to college. Policymakers have recently considered restoring Pell Grant eligibility for this population of 200,000 Californians. More opportunities for financial aid would help them to break counterproductive patterns, succeed academically, and contribute to the workforce and economy, all while uplifting their individual and collective prosperity.

Policymakers have also recently turned their attention to the needs of student parents, the second population we will highlight. While some research has been done on the state of higher education for student parents nationwide, few studies have looked into student parents’ academic pathways in California. Given the significant portion of adult students in California, many of whom have dependents, California Competes is taking a closer look at the costs associated with higher education for this population and how the state can provide stronger support.

​Better understanding these students’ experiences and finding ways to help them through college will not only benefit their individual prosperity, but it will also contribute to the state’s economic well-being.

Better understanding these students’ experiences and finding ways to help them through college will not only benefit their individual prosperity, but it will also contribute to the state’s economic well-being. California cannot continue to rely on the 37 percent of high school graduates who then complete college to meet the state’s workforce demands [1]. Lags in degree completion increase the state’s urgency to focus on those nontraditional students who are starting to become the new-normal student population. 

[1] California Competes, Back to College, Part One: California’s Imperative to Re-Engage Adults, 2018