Community Colleges Respond to Adult Student Needs

Community colleges are becoming very responsive to adult students’ needs. A January 2019 RISC Survey What challenges to success do community college students face? revealed that adult students listed balancing work and school, paying expenses and meeting demands of family responsibility were their top three challenges. Many community colleges are working together to devise plans that guide students toward academic success and achievement; others are using individualized advising to support completion efforts that students’ financial concerns.

Community college programs impact many students. In the fall of 2017, 5.8 million people enrolled at community colleges, most of them as part-time students. Colleges and universities granted almost 2 million bachelor’s degrees last year, and almost half of those recipients had community college credit. In some states the rate is even higher; for example in Texas, last year three out of four bachelor degree graduates had previously attended community college.

Recently community colleges have developed programs and pathways that help adult learners rise up to meet their challenge of balancing school work and a job. Many of the schools offer structured pathways that help students persist towards completion with highly personalized counseling and student support. Josh Wyner, vice president at The Aspen Institute and founder and executive director of its College Excellence Program says, “About 80 percent of community college students say they want a degree, but only about 20 percent complete it. Life gets in the way,” he said. “They need clear, efficient, useful pathways, and sitting alongside them they need support so they have real momentum toward their degree and beyond.”

One plan that offers this kind of support is the Guided Pathways project from the Association of American Colleges and Universities and the Center for Community College Student Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. These organizations are working with 20 community colleges to create a framework that will give students direction towards achieving a degree. One component of this program that will help students gain momentum and keep moving towards completion is that they must choose a major after they earn 30 credits. Students also meet with counselors to stay on track. Guided Pathways is helping student succeed; the graduation rate for the Alamo College District in San Antonio increased from 28 percent in 2011 to 47 percent in 2015.

Employer tuition assistance plans can complement a student’s guided pathway. Letting employees know what career opportunities are available and the knowledge and skills they must acquire to take advantage of these opportunities can help provide momentum for students to move ahead in their education. Seeing the relevance of their education to their work creates students’ perseverance, and the opportunity to apply what they are learning is a benefit for their employer.

Many students think that stopping out during the summer months is a way for them to ease the expense of school. This isn’t necessarily the case. According to MDRC, a nonpartisan, nonprofit social policy research group, 80 percent of community college students had federal Pell Grant money leftover that they could have used for summer classes. But only 20 percent of community college students attend during the summer. Using this aid that students have already been granted makes it possible for them to attend summer classes and speed up their time to graduation.

The Encouraging Additional Summer Enrollment (EASE) study found that students who received personalized notices about their available aid were more likely to enroll in summer classes. Sending students messages that include their name, the amount of aid they still have available for the summer, counseling information and setting an appointment for them is a tactic that definitely increased summer enrollment. Summer enrollment increased from 26.2 percent of student who received generic notices to 38.4 percent of students who received personalized notices. Tuition assistance plans that include personalized encouragement will reinforce the importance of what the community colleges are doing. “We know from previous MRC research that students who enroll in summer courses are more likely to persist,” says Camielle Headlam, the EASE project manager and MDRC research analyst.

Counseling support that helps students persist is valuable for students and the future workforce. At the recent (AACC) American Association of Community Colleges’ 99th annual convention in Orlando, Dr. Sandra Kurtinitis, Chair of the AACC executive committee and president of the Community College of Baltimore County, spoke about the “21st Century Learner.” She said that the community colleges across the country provide a “continuum of education” in the form of degrees, certificates, credentials and more.”