Nontraditional students impact US Economy, Society and Schools

Nontraditional students are poised to impact the United States in many ways. In recent years this diverse group has already had an impact on higher education institutions. Schools have developed innovative methods of education delivery and recognized multiple ways for students to earn credit in the process of meeting nontraditional students’ needs. Now, as a growing part of the population, nontraditional students will impact the US economy and social dynamics.

Nontraditional students will inform the composition of the higher education population in the very near future. College campuses filled with fresh young students right out of high school is a picture that isn’t completely accurate, any more. For the last 15 years the number of high school graduates has increased each year. But the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) projects change:
• From 2014-2023 there will be fewer graduates each year than the peak year of 2013
• After a short period of growth, the annual high school graduate population from 2027-2032 will be smaller than in 2013.

Changes in numbers of graduates will impact the workforce and economy, like dominoes falling. Lower numbers of high school graduates will lead to fewer traditional college students, fewer people earning degrees, and a shortage of qualified workers. Educated workers are needed to fill the jobs of the future, but the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce predicts that the United States will be short 5 million workers with higher education.

So where will all the college students come from to earn degrees and fill 64 percent of jobs that are projected to require higher education? Nontraditional students. People who have started but not completed their education, workers who need more training to advance in their jobs, and adults who are making their first entry into higher education are the students who will learn skills and earn degrees. Different education backgrounds and nontraditional ways to credit are part of the higher education experience for nontraditional students. But there is a common end goal: to complete the education they need.

The impact of nontraditional students earning degrees goes far beyond individual jobs or filling worker shortages. Local economies benefit from the financial stability and increased income of a population with higher education degrees. A stronger tax base is one benefit. A College Board Report states that bachelor’s degree holders pay an estimate 91 percent more in taxes, about $6,000; they take home 61 percent more pay, about $17,700 after-taxes, than high school graduates. Every four additional college graduates in a community brings an additional $1,000,000 for goods and services into the local economy.

Beyond financial gain and advantages, nontraditional students impact their social and civic environments. College graduates were found to be 1.7 times more likely to vote, 2.3 times more likely to volunteer, and 2.6 times more likely to be involved in their community.

Louis Soares and Jonathan Gagliardi of the American Council on Education discuss the importance of nontraditional students. “Helping post-traditional learners earn a degree also helps society. The benefits are manifold, and include higher tax revenues, greater civic engagement, and less reliance on public assistance. Institutions also stand to gain from making post-traditional learners a focal point, particularly as the number of high school graduates plateaus over the next two decades and once reliable sources of funding (e.g., state funding)grow more volatile.”