RAYMOND-GARCIA: U. needs to offer more resources for students
Opinions Column: A Ray of Esperanza
The idea of what a non-traditional student is should be improved, because being a non-traditional student in other ways makes the path toward a four-year degree harder to get to the finish line. This is especially true of the institutions of higher education that are not doing enough to get them there.
When most people think of a non-traditional student, the first thing that comes to mind is someone who has not been in an academic setting for a few years and are older than the 18-22 age range that most college students fall into. However, this common definition of non-traditional students excludes a wide array of individuals who should not fall into the category of a “traditional” college student based on a number of factors. These include, but are not limited to income level, first-generation status, foster-care involvement, identifying as a member of a historically disenfranchised race or ethnicity, immigration status and taking a greater role in the care of their family units. Fitting into multiple of these identities compounds the difficulty of completing a college degree.
Students like myself, who have to navigate one or more of these obstacles while trying to simultaneously earn their degrees, have a much more difficult time achieving our higher-educational aspirations than our peers. Of the students registered in undergraduate programs in the U.S. in 2012, one-third of them were first-generation. The percentage of low-income, first-generation students who complete their undergraduate degree in six years is at a low 11 percent. The number of foster-care youth who earn a college degree at all is significantly lower than that of the general population, coming in at 2 to 9 percent. On top of the mounting pressure we feel from so many aspects of our lives, many of us struggle with mental health issues on a daily basis, which makes our existence in higher education that much harder. The compounding of these statistics speaks volumes to how the system is set up for so many of us to fail before we even step foot on a college campus.
While there are programs in place to act as cushions for non-traditional students, their scope of aid is limited by institutional rules, the increasing number of students they serve, and the resources appropriated to them. Programs like the Educational Opportunity Fund, Project MYSELF, Student Support Services and more have the collective goal of getting certain populations accepted and graduated from Rutgers, as well as other higher educational institutions. However, in order for these programs to be more effective in serving their students, the colleges and universities who have any number of individuals in these populations need to reprioritize their spending and give more to these programs to ensure more students are graduating and on time.
The kind of commitment us non-traditional students have to give to our institutions is unique in that they need to be able to somehow balance each part of their lives to ensure that all of their responsibilities are met, from working long hours to making it to class on time. The issue with this is that the more non-traditional students take on, the more susceptible they are to wearing themselves out quicker and developing mental health and a whole host of other issues that act as extra hurdles to overcome. With increasing numbers of students developing unhealthy lifestyles, coping habits and mental health issues, this hits this community of students that much harder. How do higher educational institutions expect students who fall into these ignored categories of nonconventional, non-traditional students, to graduate on time and with high grades and extra-curriculars under their belts when there are not enough support systems in place to get them there? When this community does not meet these expectations, stereotypes about their communities are used as a weapon against them to prove their “value,” or better yet, lack thereof. In the same token, how can society be allowed to have such high expectations of us when there are so many systemic barriers that these students have to overcome to get here?
While many of us advocate on the behalf of the underprivileged and under-resourced communities we identify with, this should not be expected of us. It is enough for students like us to be breaking these glass ceilings by being at our respective institutions of higher education. Our higher educational institutions need to be holding themselves accountable because our society depends on it. Research shows that non-whites will become the majority within the next few decades, poverty is becoming more widespread, and the economy is stagnating, making degree-holding individuals that more important. If higher educational institutions are not graduating students who have life experiences different from the norm, the future of our economy, and society for that matter, does not look as bright as we would have hoped.
Vanessa Raymond-Garcia is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in women’s and gender studies with a minor in public policy and a dual candidate for a master’s in public policy. Her column, "A Ray of Esperanza," runs on alternate Mondays.
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