What Adult Learners Need: In Support of Community Colleges

I recently came across an NPR article entitled “What Adult Learners Really Need (Hint: It’s Not Just Job Skills)” by Anya Kamenetz (2018). In the article, the author interviews David Scobey, PhD, who argues against the idea of 2-year degrees, stackable credits, and short-term workforce credential programs. Instead, he suggests that more than 70% of community college students want to get a bachelor’s degree; highlights the importance of a broad, liberal arts education; and suggests that many of the jobs accepting students with third-party credentials will be gone in the next decade.

In reflecting on this article, and drawing on our work with community colleges on Department of Labor grants, including multiple focus groups with a wide variety of community college staff, students, and employers, we believe that several other points should be considered:

  • Community college programs can be responsive to regional workforce needs by having honest conversations with area employers, who can be partners in training and education. When community colleges work with local workforce advisory boards on curriculum development, regional needs, and program implementation, students and employers both benefit. Employers have shared that they want students with basic workforce training and soft skills, and community colleges have partnered with employers to provide students with a foundation for success. Once students receive their credentials or certifications and are employed, the partner employers have stated that they will work with their new employees to advance their training and education. As a result, completing a short-duration program oftentimes does not signify the end of a student’s education or training, but could be just the beginning.
  • Community colleges can provide additional “vertical supports” such as training in soft skills, Microsoft Office, and career readiness, as well as tutoring and coaching. Within these supports, students take courses together and create peer learning communities and cohorts that encourage students and motivate them to persevere (similar to “horizontal supports”). In focus groups, students regularly spoke to the benefits of these supports, commenting on staff and instructors who would do anything to see students succeed and a motivating and supportive “family” of peers in their programs.
  • Remedial education experiences differ, with remediation acting as a potential barrier to continued education. Consider that 91% of 2-year institutions have an open admissions policy, compared to 27% of 4-year institutions (U.S. Department of Education, 2017). As a result, the needs of remedial education students at the community college level are likely very different from the needs of those at the university level. In community colleges, adult learners who pursue additional education after years away can face anxiety as they find themselves in need of remedial math and English courses, and they may be at greater risk of dropping out (Pruett & Absher, 2015). Community college students may also be older and have poorer college adjustment, more difficulty with finances and with accessing college services, and more difficulty with transportation (David et al., 2015; Simmons, 1995). Because of these differences, these students may not have the same opportunities (or desires) to pursue a 4-year degree.
  • Remedial courses can be effective in community colleges if they are contextualized and supportive. We have seen that remedial education at the community college level can be very effective at increasing students’ knowledge, self-confidence, and career self-efficacy if such instruction is included within an overall program model of contextualized support. At capstone presentations at the end of their 6-month programs, we have heard community college students speak to the positive impact that these short-duration programs and remedial courses had on their lives. Many students did not realize that they were “good students” until they participated in these courses.
  • A broad liberal arts curriculum is not for everyone. Many community college students that we have talked to mentioned the benefits of completing an applied program in their chosen field. These students specifically noted that they were not interested in a broader or more expansive liberal arts curriculum.
  • Adult learners should have the option of a shorter-duration program. Students enter these programs for several reasons, such as (a) a belief that their bachelor’s or master’s degree is not helping them to find a job; (b) an eagerness to get back into the workforce after being laid off; or (c) a determination to limit any personal or family financial struggles associated with taking time off from work.
  • Community colleges can support students in going farther than they thought possible. We also heard from community college students who were so motivated and engaged by their supportive, contextualized experiences in 6-month programs that they continued on to other 6-month programs, and some went on to attain an associate degree. Several students who furthered their education shared that they were initially not expecting to seek anything beyond a 6-month certificate, noting that they previously lacked the academic self-efficacy to consider anything else.
  • Short-duration programs can be successful in training students and preparing them for the future, and more models should be shared. It may be that more needs to be shared around successful program models at the community college level. We intend to be part of that discussion. If you are interested in learning more, please see our presentation on a successful cohort-based program model for recruiting, retaining, and employing advanced manufacturing students at the High Impact Technology Exchange Conference (HI-TEC) in July 2018 or contact us for more information.

 

References:

David, K. M., Lee, M. E., Bruce, J. D., Coppedge, B. R., Dickens, D., Friske, J., . . . Thorman, J. (2015). Barriers to success predict fall-to-fall persistence and overall GPA among community college students. Journal of Applied Research in the Community College, 21(1), 5–13.

Pruett, P. S., & Absher, B. (2015). Factors influencing retention of developmental education students in community colleges. Delta Kappa Gamma Bulletin, 81(4), 32–40.

Simmons, D. L. (1995). Retraining dislocated workers in the community college: Identifying factors for persistence. Community College Review, 23(2), 47–58.

U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), Fall 2000 and Fall 2010 Institutional Characteristics component and Winter 2015–16 and 2016–17 Admissions component. Table retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d17/tables/dt17_305.30.asp?current=yes