10/23/2013 12:17 pm ET Updated Dec 23, 2013

Why the Current Conversation About Higher Ed Misses the Majority

When taking current national conversations on college education into account, the focus seems to always revolve around the traditional 18- to- 22-year-old student demographic. Many people, educator and administrators included, like to talk about issues surrounding low enrollment, limited access and lack of financial support. However, the face of today's college student is rapidly changing, and higher education must evolve in order to meet student needs. According to statistics from the National Center for Education, between 2000 and 2010 there was a 42 percent increase in the enrollment of students ages 25 and older. And according to The Hamilton Project, part of the Brookings Institution, 51.3 percent of the nation's college students today are considered financially independent.

Why, then, is there a lack of conversation about the need for higher education to meet the needs of this group of students now in the majority of educational consumers? Room needs to be made in this sphere, however, for the growing number of adult, nontraditional learners who seek access to quality higher education. In order to improve the availability, quality and affordability of higher education, we need to recognize the increasingly important role that today's independent student plays in the current educational landscape. So what are we as educators to do in to start this new conversation?

We must move more toward understanding the issues that affect nontraditional learners and engage with them at a higher level. What are these students looking for in a degree, and how can we help them get there? What aspects of certain college programs attract adult learners? For those who cannot reach a traditional campus, how do we create the kind of quality online education that has been found in traditional educational settings for decades?

Educational financing needs particular attention, since statistics show that a large segment of today's college students pay their own way through college. Though nontraditional students are more likely to receive Pell Grants than traditional students, they are much less likely to receive private scholarships. With decreased access to this type of funding, adult learners may be discouraged from pursuing their education if colleges and universities do not step up and engineer programs that are cost-effective and offer payment options that remain conscious of an adult learner's job commitment and life situations. Looking at higher education through this sort of lens, provides institutions with a platform to change the course of the national educational conversation to make it more focused on the student and his or her financial needs and availability to access education rather than the institution.

Online education should also take a central focus in discussions about how we can better serve adult learners. MOOCs are quickly gaining traction among many educators and students, but there are too many unknowns to endorse this as a credible form of quality online learning. What needs to happen is educators and administrators need to find a way to bring interactive online classes to meet adults where they are - busy working full-time jobs where the need for advanced training has never been higher.

However, before we address these issues, we must break down our own walls -- metaphorically and literally -- so we can let in this new generation of learners. They are not the teenagers who have historically filled undergraduate classes; they are working parents, full-time employees, people looking to advance in their careers, those looking for second degrees or ones in new fields. We must focus on them in addition to paying attention to those high school students who are taking the traditional route. This mix of interest -- much like the mix of online and traditional offerings at many of today's institutions -- must occur in order to offer the best possible education to the largest number of people.

Why is this all so important? Changing the current national conversation on education opens the door for our adult learners to grow, thrive, and compete in an increasingly interdisciplinary and complex world. We are currently falling behind other countries economically, and without producing quality learners and professionals we will only continue to drop on the list. By changing the course of the conversation -- by taking a more complex look at what today's college student actually looks like and what students need -- we can change the way education is viewed, delivered, and received.

Jayson M. Boyers is the vice president, Division of Continuing Professional Studies, at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont, a private institution that offers bachelor's and master's degrees in professionally-focused programs balanced by an interdisciplinary core curriculum.