Community colleges tailor support systems to serve adult learners

Recognizing that they are increasingly attracting older students balancing coursework with jobs, family obligations, and other demands, two-year institutions are crafting support systems to help adult learners complete their degrees. Rising tuition prices and a rapidly expanding number of “free” college programs have made community colleges more attractive for adult learners seeking alternatives to the traditional four-year pathway. Institutions, meanwhile, are realizing the need for new strategies to ensure those students’ success—and are customizing their pathways, instruction, and supports accordingly, Education Dive reports.

“About 80% of community college students say they want a degree, but only about 20% complete it. Life gets in the way,” said Josh Wyner, vice president at The Aspen Institute and executive director of its College Excellence program. “They need clear, efficient, useful pathways, and sitting alongside them they need support so they have real momentum toward their degree and beyond.”

Structured pathways to boost student success

Wyner points to the success achieved by the Alamo Colleges District, a five-college system in Texas. The district, which enrolls nearly 100,000 students, has kept students on track with a pathway featuring a number of benchmarks. Those milestones, such as declaring a major and meeting with counselors, have helped the college’s three-year graduation and transfer rate jump from 28 percent in 2011 to 47 percent in 2015. Mitchell Technical Institute in South Dakota saw a similar increase—achieving a 77 percent four-year graduation and transfer rate—after shifting gears to focus on guided pathways for students.

Academic support for at-risk students also has proven beneficial, as has training for faculty members on how to best serve community colleges’ shifting student population. Some institutions also are optimizing students’ pathways into the workforce, examining labor data and collaborating closely with local employers to ensure students have visibility into wages and careers with strong employment opportunities.

Supports to address life off campus

Certain interventions, meanwhile, reflect a growing awareness that life outside of the classroom can have a clear impact on how well students perform academically. Some institutions, like Montgomery College, which is located in a suburb of Washington, D.C., offer free parking and public transportation, along with free- and low-cost food pantries. Asnuntuck Community College in Connecticut offers free child care, funded by the student government and sustained by parent volunteers, to help adult learners work through circumstances that would otherwise distract from learning.

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