Community colleges were designed to serve a dying breed of students--a unicorn--instead of post-traditional students.

Are community colleges for unicorns?


Community colleges can better support post-traditional students if they pay attention to three areas in particular

Post-traditional students are much different from the student population most community colleges were designed to serve, but these institutions must meet this student group’s unique needs in order to stay relevant among declining enrollments.

This set of learners are more likely to attend community colleges than four-year schools, and it’s up to community colleges to demonstrate their relevance and ability to help students gain academic experiences that will fulfill career goals, according to a new whitepaper from EAB.

Related: Are you reaching the “new normal” student?

By responding to student motivations and challenges, community colleges can prove to these post-traditional learners that they can balance classes with their personal and professional responsibilities.

A number of obstacles often stand in the way of post-traditional learners enrolling or attaining degrees or credentials in community college:
1. Limited after-hours class schedules and services
2. Penalties for absences
3. Programs lack milestone credentials
4. Little basic needs support
5. Minimal credit for past experiences

Newly-enrolled students might think they can divide their efforts evenly among family, work, and academics, but most find it impossible. “Academics will nearly always lose to family and professional responsibilities,” according to the whitepaper. “In fact, among those students who left college, 56 percent say the need to work full-time prevents their return to higher education, and 53 percent say family responsibilities keep them from re-enrolling.”

Post-traditional learners need information and tools to find balance.

Early career advising for post-traditional learners

It’s important for community college leaders to understand why post-traditional learners attend college. Most enroll in higher education out of career aspirations, such as the need to work to support themselves or their families, or pursuing skills or credentials required by a job.

When advisers better understand what motivates post-traditional learners, advisers can help students build a program of study aligned with their specific needs.

Data suggests early career advising should have a three-pronged approach:
1. The college should help students realize that college is an opportunity for self-discovery, aligning interests to opportunities, and making informed choices about career aspirations.
2. Students should have plenty of built-in opportunities to explore professional pathways.
3. Students should have access to data and insights from peers and leaders in their field of choice.

Related: 3 ways to actually support nontraditional learners

Adapting the college to working students

Faculty and administrative practices have an important role in helping post-traditional students feel they belong on campus and in helping students develop purposeful relationships with advisers.

Because these students have professional and personal demands to juggle, community college leaders should consider what might happen if their practices were more aligned with the needs of working students.

Services that engage off-campus students, course schedules crafted for students’ availability, and classroom adaptation through the use of technology are all retention strategies worthy of exploration.

Employment preparation

Community colleges often have strong relationships with local businesses, but career preparation workshops, co-ops, and internship are typically offered during the day when many post-traditional students are working.

Federal Work Study as practical experience, apprenticeships in industry, partnerships with workforce development boards and community-based organizations, career-preparation workshops in flexible formats, and employer-student networking during nonworking hours are viable retention strategies that speak to employment preparation.

Laura Ascione