Authentic Life Experience

The enrollment challenges that universities face in the coming decade will be assigned to the enduring impact of COVID-19. While part of emerging trends, it’s not the complete ledger. Birthrates are down nationally, as is college readiness. In Texas, 90% of the students enrolled in high school graduate. However, only half of those met the college readiness requirements, according to the Texas Education Agency, in 2018.

Sixty-three percent of our nation believes that college students are 20 years old. However, in reality, college students are over 26-year-old. In addition, the number of students in two-year and four-year colleges are nearly equal, with slightly over 40% in four-year institutions and over 38% in two-year institutions. While high school graduation rates have increased dramatically, from 83% to over 90% since 1972, success in college is less heartening. Of all college students, only about 50% complete a degree or certificate program in six years, regardless of institutional type. The Brookings Institute attributes high school completion rates to No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the increased levels of accountability brought about by the NCLB initiative over time. (Maybe it’s the “everybody gets a ribbon mentality” on steroids).

College readiness assessment applies to all forms of post-secondary education. A challenge for universities is the generally perceived idea that all post-secondary four-year institutions are the same. Our notions of universities conflate public and private universities, large and small, international, national, state and regional universities as identical. There are over 5,000 universities in the United States. Unfortunately, the 200 major public and private universities are often considered the benchmark for the other 4,800. This may not be a conscious decision, but it is the perception baked into truth in the popular press, legislatures and many other settings. The reality is that the eight Ivy League schools account for .05% of all college graduates, yet the impact of this special group of institutions is outsized. In addition, the big public universities with high-profile intercollegiate athletics programs also represent a small number of the total percentage of college graduates. Nationally over 40% of college graduates come from regional institutions. Many of these former teachers’ colleges or “normal schools” are workhorses in producing workforce-ready graduates. Jeffrey Selingo laid this out in the Washington Post a decade ago. Institutions like WT create innovative realities through relentless focus, proud regionalism and responsiveness to changing demographics. We know what the mother of invention is.

According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, post-secondary education decreased by over 4% from 2020 – 2021. Undergraduate student enrollments have dropped 7% since 2019. Community colleges lost 15%. This is surprising as community colleges have the opportunity to significantly impact workforce preparation in the shortest time at the lowest cost. Yet because of “university envy,” the desire to be seen as a four-year institution, many community colleges could lose the attention of a vital audience. The same scenario applies to regional universities that succumb to flagship envy. Nobody wins, especially non-traditional students.

One approach that attentive regional universities should take is to encourage the power of authentic life experience strongly. As the age of college students tends to increase, they bring with them the concept of personal responsibility and self-help. The motivation of the 30-year-old is different from that of an 18-year-old. Older students, frequently with significant and powerful authentic life experiences, like jobs, families, financial requirements, involvement and abilities in the workplace, provide change agency and a distinguishing characteristic for the regional university that attends to their needs and station in life. The notion of who goes to college and how is changing.

The 30-year-old brings authentic life experience outside the household or the high school experience. The learning experience for all students is enriched. Traditional engagements of clubs, student activities, intercollegiate athletics, Greek life and a whole host of other valuable activities tend to be less appealing to non-traditional students. Authentic life experiences can guide the learning process towards utility-enriched encounters. I am not talking about vocational education and training, which are valuable, nor numb pragmatism. Many thirty-somethings know the value of being able to write clearly as an indication of being clearheaded. Mathematical literacy, numeracy and compound interest’s impact on our lives are important. Reading and thinking critically, understanding the nature of freedom made possible by a republican form of government and its importance in contemporary society can be neither overlooked nor overstated.

Integrating life circumstances outside of the predictable “safe zones” of high school classrooms fueled by authentic experience—pursuits and professions of life—is a universal benefit and can be a distinguishing characteristic of an effective university. Effective universities will respond or suffer the consequences of neglect.

 Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His weekly columns are available at

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