Mums in Science reader Rachel Higgins details how shifts in educational demographics in the U.S. and across Europe have made it easier for women in all stages of life to gain access to university learning, particularly in the maths and sciences. Ms. Higgins writes around the web about such things as how to find an accredited online college. Her thoughts below add to conversations this blog has previously held about learning stereotypes and how to change them.

According to recent statistics, college enrollments are exploding across both the nation and the world. A lot of this has to do with societal shifts, as no longer is college something pursued only by the wealthy elite. New means of accessing education also plays a role, though. Scholarships, grants, and loans make paying for education feasible for many people who might not otherwise be able to afford a degree, and the growth of the online learning platform has made it such that virtually any Internet connection can also be a classroom. The result is not just that more students than ever before are enrolling—the student body is also increasingly diverse. Women, seasoned professionals, minorities, and people from all socioeconomic backgrounds together weave the fibre of the modern college experience.

The number of students in all demographic brackets pursuing higher education hit an all-time high in 2011, and the numbers seem to be on an ever-upward spiral. The United States Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics reported an 11 percent jump between 1990 and 2000, then a staggering 37 percent jump between 2000 and 2010.

Some of this surge has to do with the down economy—students increasingly see college as a way of both bettering their chances for a job and buying time in a largely stagnant market. Population growth may also play a role. According to most scholars, though, one of the biggest reasons is that people who would not have otherwise even considered college are now finding it both affordable and accessible. Most of these people are minorities and many of them are adult learners.

College has traditionally been very expensive, and rates are on the rise as schools lose money in endowments and face ever-shrinking budgets. Schools that value diversity have been forceful about helping underserved students make college a reality, though, often underwriting a portion of their expenses or arranging for grants and private loans. President Obama’s 2012 plan to lower college tuition by half is certainly helping drive the push for college education to be a more readily-accessible resource, and Congress’ recent commitments to freeze interest hikes on federal Stafford student loans and to make financial aid more clear-cut have also worked as something of an incentive. “We must make it easier for parents and students to finance their college education and to understand their financial obligations,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told college and university presidents in 2012. “It starts with transparency. Families should have clear and comparable information in a common format to guide their choice.”

The growth of online academia has also made a big difference. A growing number of schools offer online courses, and students with limited flexibility in terms of scheduling have often found great success pursuing degrees from accredited for-profit universities that exist entirely online.

Online learning is in many ways responsible for the shift in enrollment demographics not just in the United States, but around the world. The Internet often works as a great stabilizer, making equal what once was disparate—and education is no exception. Particularly in the math and sciences, remote learning has opened broad new doors for people of all backgrounds. Older people, people who grew up in poverty, students in developing countries—online, these differences seem to disappear.

According the College Board, students from low-income families “are much more likely than higher-income students (48 percent to 36 percent) to strongly agree that a college degree is needed ‘to be successful in life.’” These numbers were collected based on U.S. demographics, but can be expected to extend to others around the world as well. The prevalence of the Internet and improved access to information is largely the root of this shifting belief and the action that so often follows.

It is usually quite easy to identify the good things about a more diverse student body. When more people have access to information and education, all of society benefits. Graduates enter the workforce with more intellectual power, which raises the capital of the nation as a whole; more ideas often mean more innovations, and innovation is often essential to economic growth. Welcoming more people into the higher education community seems to be a win-win.

There are downsides, though, particularly where institutional finances are concerned. Though students are increasingly able to find sources of funding to cover their tuition, schools are often struggling to accommodate the students who want and are able to matriculate. This is often particularly true at community colleges, where demand is fast outstripping the available resources.

The ramifications of students graduating in debt is also something to consider, particularly when looking realistically at the sorts of jobs and pay scales available in today’s marketplace. Though the government’s tuition initiatives are promising, most have not yet come into fruition—or when they have, change has been but incremental.

The demographics of the modern college experience seem to be forever changing age-old understandings of “normal.” Though mostly for the best, schools are still struggling in some respects with how to manage the shifting landscape to everyone’s advantage. The future of education and college accessibility hangs somewhere in the balance, though the prospects look promising.


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