A focus on learning can expand access for students

New report urges policymakers to serve nontraditional students.

students-accessIn the last several years, colleges and universities across the nation have seen an influx of nontraditional students, due in part to the economic recession that began in 2008 and forced many workers to reevaluate career goals and seek training.

These students are typically 25+ years old and often face unique challenges related to childcare, competing responsibilities, or full- or part-time jobs that make it difficult for them to excel in a traditional postsecondary learning environment.

As a result, the national conversation has shifted to focus on providing these students with better pathways to obtain the postsecondary degrees that are so imperative to thrive in the 21st century.

A report released by the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) suggests that during the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA), policymakers should restructure financial aid programs and policies to focus on student learning outcomes – what students actually know and can do – rather than how much time was spent in a classroom.

The report, “Expanding Educational Opportunities for Students: Innovative Learning Models and Student Financial Aid,” points out that a system like this is currently impossible given the rigidity of rules surrounding many of the federal student aid programs.

“The current student aid system is not well equipped to address the needs of nontraditional student populations,” said NASFAA President Justin Draeger. “It is our hope that the Department of Education, accreditors, states, and schools can work together to find ways to ensure students in nontraditional learning models are offered pathways to high-quality postsecondary education, possibly at reduced cost and higher levels of success.”

The recommendations proposed in the report focus on accelerating time to degree completion, improving access, lowering total educational cost, and keeping student loan indebtedness to a minimum in order to meet the needs of both individual learners and the institutions serving these students.

While the report has been spurred by the growing number of nontraditional students, the benefits of making the programs more flexible could ultimately impact all students in a positive way. Emerging forms of technology, competency-based education, and prior learning can lay the groundwork for more students to gain access to and complete a postsecondary education, and advancements in these areas have the potential to reinvent the higher education system.

To do so, the report notes that long-overdue changes need to be made to the federal financial aid system in order to keep pace with emergent technologies and opportunities.

Material from a press release was used in this report.

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Laura Ascione

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