The myth of the “typical” college student

Financially strapped and culturally diverse, college students today do not resemble pop culture stereotypes.

No two college students have the same story. This is especially true when you consider how much it’s changed over the last three decades. It seems that younger adults have to grow up much faster now compared to our parents or grandparents. College is much more expensive with everything from tuition and room & board to even paying for food.

“My mom is an employee of ISU as a professor in the nursing program, so my tuition is discounted by almost half automatically. So I’ve had to borrow considerably less than most students,” said Indiana State senior Mitch Weust.

When a student decides to leave for college they are faced with many choices. There are the obvious ones such as location of the school, going far from home or staying close, tuition, and living on or off campus. However, there are also many other factors that affect how a student’s experience will be. First and often overlooked are the student’s ability to pay for life outside of pure tuition and supply costs. It varies even more when looking at whether or not the student will choose to live on campus or commute.

Miles apart

“I lived on campus all four years and it was definitely more expensive. I feel like a lot of the money I owe was just because I lived on campus and paid close to ten thousand a year for the privilege,” said ISU alumnus Anthony Shaffer.

Living off campus can mean lower rent but additional costs including utilities, food, gas money and the inconvenience of being farther away from classes and campus activities.

“Living off campus was the best option for me because I save so much money. It’s less inclusive, but overall it’s a better choice for students who are not on scholarships or want to save money on room and board,” said Weust.

An on-campus student or someone living within a mile of it, has access to many more convenient resources than a commuter. The dining hall is included in room and board, and credits are available for 20 cents per 1 credit. The commuter rate for dining hall credits is almost double that at 35 cents. This means it’s much harder for commuter students to eat on campus without paying a lot more or spending “real” money in the commons.

“Eating on campus was probably the best part because you didn’t have to care about groceries or cooking, which would have been something else I had to worry about,” said Shaffer.

In addition to the cost of living, the experience is different comparing on campus life to commuter life. Students in dorms can walk anywhere on campus within ten minutes or so. They also have easier access to events happening at ISU. Commuters often have to travel a decent distance to come to campus and park far away, unless you’re lucky enough to get a parking spot in a lot. (Good luck!)

The distance from campus life or the “college” experience is also greater for commuters, said Mackenzie McKee, an ISU freshman.

“It’s weird because I’m from Terre Haute and still live here, yet I never really go to anything on campus since I live off of campus. It seems like there isn’t much advertisement or reaching out to people off of campus, but at the same time, I don’t really reach out,” McKee said.

Events on campus often advertise only on campus. It’s easy for commuter students to feel disconnected from campus life.

Ages apart

Other than the major differences between on campus life versus commuter life, the “typical student’s” age is something that has changed a lot over the last three decades as well. Twenty years ago in 1996, the percentage of students from 18- 21 was 75%. In 2016, that percentage has dropped to 62.5%. Speculation as to why this has changed is most likely due to the amount of high school seniors choosing alternative routes to a traditional education. Programs such as vocational training or certifications have become much more popular as tuition and cost of living rates continue to increase year by year. Another possible reason for this decline is purely the cost as mentioned before. It is much more common for a student to go to a local school while working or staying with their parents than it was 20- 30 years ago.

While the percentage of 18–21 year old students has declined 12.5% in the last twenty years, the amount of 22–25 year olds has increased. In 1996 the percentage was 12% and in 2016 it was 15.2%. While this is a small increase of 3.2%, it shows that more young people are taking a few years off before coming to college. This can be to save up money or possibly explore what they want to pursue before finding a degree path. It can also mean that students are staying in college longer than they did twenty years ago. This could be for a variety of reasons, but most likely it relates to the fact that many students work at least part-time to support themselves. While it’s possible that the dependent students are pursuing multiple degrees or changed their major, which adds more time, the “typical” 22–25 year old has to work in order to pay for their life.

Perhaps the most staggering change in the age demographic of college students is that of the 26–35 and 35+ groups. In 1996, only 9 percent of students were ages 26–35, while in 2016 that number has risen 4.35 percent to 13.35 percent. Like the 22–25 year old group, 26–35 year olds chose to have life experience before pursuing their academic efforts. Perhaps they had children or simply could not afford to attend college right after graduating high school.

The most telling piece of data comes from the increase in over-35-year-old students, who made up only 4 percent of U.S. college students in 1996. In 2016, that number has more than doubled to 8.95 percent.

The greater numbers of older students has a lot to do with the changing job market. But what that means on campus is that older professionals on the way to class are as likely to be undergraduate students as they are professors.

Pop culture goes to college

Check out some of our favorite (mis)representations of “typical” college life.

Animal House (1978)

The myth of the typical college student has been shattered in the modern world. The “Animal House” or classic idea of an early twenties student hasn’t existed on a large scale for years, and maybe, it never did.

Old School (2003)

The notion that a student graduates high school, goes to college, has everything paid for and has a great time exists in very little students. As culture, the economy and values have changed, so has “the student.” Between staggering costs, families, personal life, housing and so on, a college student faces more stress and obstacles than any other time in history.

Accepted (2006)