Over the past half-century, college tuitions have increased by as much as 1,550 percent for private institutions, with public education costs rising almost as fast. Awareness of the punishing impact of this expense has increased — and now generates headlines about student debt. But this focus on cost overlooks a key outcome of the financial burden: radical changes in student demographics.

The sobering cost of higher education is transforming the student body, and the college student of the future looks a little different than you might imagine.

Mostly gone are the days of a college experience dominated by recent high school graduates. Instead we’re seeing a growing number of students over the age of 25 entering college, and a lot more commuter students rushing to make it to their full-time jobs after class — jobs necessitated by the cost of their education.

Although these students are seen as nontraditional, increasingly, they’re becoming the norm. From single parents to full-time workers, this new breed of student is understandably far more concerned with putting food on the table than extracurricular activities. And even if they don’t meet the current criteria of the classic definition of a nontraditional student, more students than ever — over 70 percent — are working their way through college. Nontraditional students are the majority on college campuses these days.

The evolution of the working student means we have to understand that today’s college attendees increasingly need a way of learning that is flexible, accessible, and adaptable. Education technology has a huge role to play here, and the many tools that are being developed to help extend and scale learning itself, such as distance learning and online course management programs, will become more important.

These changes will create a new set of material challenges for educators: As physical classrooms and lecture halls are no longer the default in the educational process, teachers themselves will need to embrace an entirely new set of tools, too.

Properly executed, increasingly accessible forms of education will allow nontraditional students the necessary flexibility to enjoy access to advance or complete their education.

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