Today's Student

America’s college students look dramatically different today than they did two decades ago.

Meet Today’s Students

Sandra Barkevich

Working parents, constantly struggling to balance school with multiple responsibilities, like Sandra Barkevich.

Ryan Smithson

Military veterans who come back from serving our country, only to struggle to complete a degree, like Ryan Smithson.

Damaris Ortiz

Immigrants seeking better opportunities but challenged by the higher education maze, like Damaris Ortiz.

Quanisha Smith

First generation students who wind up without a higher education and saddled with debt, like Quanisha Smith.


Most college students used to be this: 18- to-21-year-old, full-time students, fresh out of high school. That’s no longer true. Today’s students represent a sea change and a new reality: they are older, more racially and socioeconomically diverse, working, and raising families. They’re struggling to make ends meet. And too often, they end up dropping out – leaving them with debt and few prospects to thrive in today’s job market. Meet a few of today’s students.

Sandra Barkevich

A Working Parent’s Determination

Sandra Barkevich enrolled in community college near her hometown in upstate New York after high school but dropped out because the pressures of earning a degree while working full-time became too much. Years later, at the urging of her husband, she re-enrolled to obtain her bachelor’s degree through a distance-education program, but dropped out again after losing her job and tuition reimbursement. As she raised two children, Sandra struggled to find well-paying jobs that didn’t require a bachelor’s degree, and though she eventually found one at Honeywell, she couldn’t move up the ladder. That convinced her she needed to finish the journey she’d started years before, so she re-enrolled in college – and finished – at 41.

Like many of today’s students, Sandra persevered over many years of starts and stops before completing college. Students with additional financial, work and family obligations are twice as likely to drop out of school in their first year as students fresh out of high school – 38 percent compared to 16 percent.

Find out the facts about Today’s Students


Watch Sandra discuss her experience

Ryan Smithson

A Veteran’s Journey

Ryan Smithson joined the military out of high school, inspired by the events of 9/11 and uncertain about his career path. When he returned to the U.S. after serving in Iraq, he enrolled in college and began working toward a degree, but it was anything but a straight line. He balanced school with marriage and raising young children while working a couple of jobs to support his family. Though Ryan initially wanted to pursue criminal justice, his path changed when he realized job options were limited and instead focused on liberal arts because of his love for writing. The stress of balancing responsibilities and the uncertainty of liberal arts caused Ryan to question whether he should persist, but he stuck with it. Ryan, 29, has earned his bachelor’s degree and is pursuing a master’s in hopes he one day might teach at the college level.

Ryan struggled under the strain of juggling parenting, work and school, as many students do. In fact, 58 percent of students work while enrolled in school , averaging 19 hours per week , and 26 percent of students are raising children.

Learn Who Today’s Students Really Are


Watch Ryan recount his journey

Damaris Ortiz

An Immigrant Seeking a Better Life

Damaris Ortiz moved to the U.S. from Mexico as a teenager in hopes of obtaining a better life and stronger prospects for her future. She struggled through a language barrier and undocumented status to become fluent in English and graduate from high school. Then she faced an arduous road to earning her associate degree, which took her 10 years to complete. Along the way, she had to drop out several times –when balancing work to support herself and her family in Mexico became too much. She also gave birth to a son, Ezra. Though she still strives daily to balance the commitments of motherhood, a job and her education, she has big hopes for the future that include earning her bachelor’s degree, going to law school and becoming an immigration attorney.

Damaris represents the growing wave of today’s students who are increasingly racially and socioeconomically diverse. Enrollment among Hispanic students tripled over the last 15 years, Black student enrollment grew by 72 percent, and the percentage of minority students is projected to keep growing over the next decade.

Explore Today’s Students By The Numbers


Listen to Damaris tell her story

Quanisha Smith

A First Generation Student Struggles with Debt

Quanisha Smith grew up in a struggling neighborhood of Boston but was bussed to school in a wealthy suburb. There, influenced by the college-going culture of her peers, she set her mind on going to college, and after a campus tour, she set her sights on attending Penn State University. After two years at a satellite campus, she enrolled in the flagship Penn State campus at Happy Valley. It was there that her debt began to accumulate. She worked at a local grocery store to help offset college costs, but her pay was not enough to cover housing and tuition. Quanisha accrued nearly $48,000 in debt and was forced to drop out, still 45 credits shy of completing her degree.

Quanisha faced a lack of knowledge about how to navigate the financial burden of college, and that hampered her from completion. That’s all too common. Only 11 percent of low-income students graduate within six years, compared to 55 percent of their higher income peers.

Think you understand Today’s Student? See for yourself


Hear Quanisha talk about her experience

Today's Students are struggling to navigate an outdated higher ed system.

Learn what can be done to change this

Meet today’s students: older, more diverse, working, raising families and often struggling. Share their stories.

47% of today’s students are on their own financially.