As the landscape of higher education continues to shift with new generations and emerging technologies, it is more important than ever to continually reassess the college student journey to better understand how to be best support students in order for them to succeed.

The Primer on the College Student Journey, a recent research study published by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, provides findings and insights of the current college student’s journey and the current challenges students face. This publication serves as the foundation for ongoing research that will be done by the Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education in order to identify challenges and opportunities for students in the decades ahead.

Below, are some key findings from the data-rich report, what they mean, and how institutions can address them to provide a better student-experience and to improve the higher education system as a whole.

5 Key Takeaways and How to Address Them

  1. College students are academically unprepared for college – One half of all college students take remedial courses.

 What it means: Students, especially underserved populations, are underestimating the academic workload and course expectations at higher education institutions.

How to Address it: Better communication with high schools and prospective students about academic workload

The transition from a high school curriculum and schedule to a higher education curriculum and schedule can be very difficult for many students, especially underserved populations or international students that don’t have resources to college-readiness courses and materials.

Clear communication between high school students, counselors, and higher ed institutions is crucial to better preparing students for college. Program specifics such as estimated workload, details of courses, and even estimated schedules of midterms and finals can help better meet expectations of college-level classes. In addition, program expectations can be reiterated to accepted students through online orientation, along with resources to help manage time and prioritize their workload.


  1. Only 60% of students earn a BA, taking, on average, almost 6 years to complete their education. Only 29% of students who start a certificate or associates degree at a two year college earn a credential within 3 years.

 What is means: Students are taking too long to graduate, which is a contributing factor to the rise in student debt.

How to address it: Develop a Warning System. UC San Diego utilized millions of current and historical data points to develop a “Time-to-Degree” early warning system that points out potential warning signals that may hinder graduation rates. Similar to predictive medicine, it allows students to minimize risks before they become a problem.

Encourage campus life activity. A study found that students that were members of academic or scholarship programs on campus (like the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society) outperformed peers when it came to graduation rates and time-to-degree. While there are many factors at play here, surrounding students with other high-achieving students tends to have a positive impact on graduation rates.


  1. Students over 25 make up 31% of the undergrad population and 37% make up part time students. For public 2-years, 46% were 25+ in age.

What this means: “Gen Z” isn’t your only target market; adult students are an important segment that should be communicated to differently than younger students.

How to address it: Program quality, ROI, and flexibility are all important factors to adult students, which can differ from younger students. When communicating with adult students, emphasize the program tuition, start dates, and what types of jobs they can get with the degree they are looking into. Many adult students are working part or full-time and need to understand how their curriculum will fit into their busy schedule.

By offering flexible resources like online programs, live-chat counselor support, and on-demand webinars, adult students can still access support they need with their busy schedules. Consider serving up different content on your web pages depending on the users’ age, using tools like Optimizely or Google Tag Manager.


  1. Students are taking out more money for more loans than ever before, leaving total student debt at an all-time high.

What it means: The thought of higher education is becoming more daunting to students as they see the piling debt of their peers.

What you can do: According to a report done by Harvard, 70% of millennials said that financial circumstances played an important role in their decision of whether or not to pursue a college education.

Awareness and planning resources are the first steps to supporting students with their debt. Before students even enter college, they should have an idea of what their payments will look like, what their future salary may look like, and how they can pay off their loans in a timely manner.

A full understanding of the difference between grants and loans is also necessary. Many schools have begun providing unique orientations financial aid, like UT Dallas, which students can take before they decide on a college.


  1. 1/3 of undergraduate students transfer or attend two colleges at some time during their college career.

 What it means: Transfer students also make up a large percentage of college students and should be communicated with and supported according to their unique needs.

What you can do: The study found that some of the largest transfer student issues include: confusing transfer policies, vague knowledge on how transfer courses are accepted and applied to the degree, inconsistent access to transfer information, and a lack of knowledge about comparable courses taught at other public higher education institutions. Furthermore, the study found that “lower income transfer students fare worse on almost all transfer measures than their higher-income counterparts”.

To combat these issues, better communication and access to information is crucial. All transfer information should be clearly outlined on institution websites as well as on college search websites, which are used frequently by students. In addition, all sites should have a mobile-friendly form for students to request more information, as 62% of incoming students use this tool.

Orientation programs should be customized for transfer students, providing relevant information like how transfer courses can be applied to their degree and how your institutions courses compare to other university’s offerings. By using a flexible online orientation, you can tailor your orientation based on student’s answers to demographic questions.

Overall Takeaway

Better planning tools and overall awareness is necessary to improve the success of college students and to help decrease overall student debt. This means clearly outlining what it takes to get a college degree at your institution, including the coursework and cost. Providing students with examples of what a workload might look like and financial planning tool so that they can stay ahead of their loan payments before they become unmanageable. By making these supportive resources readily available online to all prospective students, consistency and a better understanding of the information will improve.