Students are taking a long, hard look at the value of a degree and whether it’s worth the sacrifices–and it just might be time for community colleges to revisit their role and the services they provide to their students. In fact, some colleges are already doing this. Like elementary schools when they began providing free lunches for students in need because it’s hard to learn on an empty stomach, community colleges are starting to look at their students’ holistic needs.
For instance, a tribal college in North Dakota, Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College (NHSC), has expanded its role in the community and is working to implement programs, practices, and technology that help it serve students in the classroom and beyond. The purpose of these changes is to give students a better chance of succeeding in post-secondary education and in their subsequent careers.
Serving the Unique Needs of the Community
NHSC is a four-year community college on a Native American reservation located in the heart of the Bakken oil field. The student population is 85 percent Native American and roughly 66 percent female. The average age of a student at the college is 23 years old. Many are likely to have dependents, either caring for their own or other children, or caring for elders.
In addition, most of the students work either full-time or part-time. Students typically have a lot on their plates, and most do not complete an associate’s degree in two years.
As a result, NHSC offers a number of social, economic, and academic support programs and services. Staff—many of whom grew up in the area and know what it means to be in the students’ shoes—understand that not all students attend community college with the skills in place to succeed. The college therefore provides opportunities for students to build skills in a safe setting. The college has a student retention counselor, a safe coordinator who works with first-year students, and a dual credit counselor to help high school students.
The college is also committed to making sure that the education its students receive can be put to use within the community.
Part of the Larger Ecosystem
Part of serving its whole community is making sure that students can achieve their educational goals, no matter what those goals may be. Therefore, the college not only offers certificates, associate’s degrees, and bachelor’s degrees, but it also offers students a way to build a path through education. This path includes moving from a certificate to an associate’s degree to a bachelor’s degree, even while working a full-time job. Part of what makes this possible are the partnerships NHSC has created with the engineering department at the North Dakota State University and with Minot State University’s social work program, among others.
In fact, NHSC has an exceptional record of graduation with North Dakota University System schools. A student who starts at NHSC and either completes their first year of general education, gets a certificate, or earns an associate’s degree is four times more likely to complete their four-year degree when they transfer to another North Dakota university than Native American students who go straight to one of the state’s universities.
NHSC developed its degree and certificate programs with the goal of making it easy for students to step off a college campus and into the local professional ranks. For example, the region is experiencing an oil boom, so the school offers students a certificate in welding technology. Students who gain business degrees can get jobs with the oil and gas companies in the region. Those who earn degrees in education immediately start working in local Head Start programs, early childcare for children with disabilities or from low-income families, or teaching in local elementary and middle schools. Students from the certified nurse aid program start working in Indian Health Service clinics and other small clinics in the area.
The college also provides leadership opportunities specific to Native American culture through programs such as an All Chiefs Society—a Native American Studies organization dedicated to the preservation of culture, language, and history—and a two-year equine-assisted therapy program. Students who graduate from Native American studies programs are helping the community language consortium, working with community leaders to make sure that this key part of their heritage doesn’t disappear.
Technology’s Key Role
Technology is a key factor in NHSC’s services to its students. NHSC recently purchased a cloud-based student information system and cloud-based Office 365 platform, which improved online learning and student experiences. These systems also make it easier to keep everyone on the same page and allow students, faculty, and administrators to share information easily.
Even before the pandemic, NHSC embraced remote learning. The middle of the reservation is taken up by the Sacagawea reservoir, the fourth-largest earthen dam in the world. The school has six sites spread across a large region, where it can take hours to get from one site to another. Given this, the college offers a hybrid model of education: Some classes are fully online and are offered either synchronously or asynchronously to fit their busy students’ lives.
NHSC also makes it a priority to teach students how to use the latest tools. For example, every student at NHSC learns the basics of how to use Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Additionally, during the first week of classes for new students, professors teach students how to use the student information system. This includes showing them how to access the platform and use it to find information on financial aid, work on their transcripts, review their grades, contact other people in their classes, review their schedules, and read documents that professors have uploaded.
The focus on the latest technology is part of NHSC’s overall commitment to delivering the best possible services to students so they can thrive—while they are in college and beyond.
Serving the New Generation of Students
Less than two generations ago, a high school education prepared many students for good-paying jobs in their communities. As the requirements for good-paying jobs now often include a college certificate or degree, colleges should consider the role they play in preparing students for the workforce. They should understand what jobs the community needs, and consider the best way is to prepare the students for those jobs.
Community colleges are uniquely placed to understand and serve the needs of local students. NHSC does this by offering flexible education programs and the technology to support the delivery of those programs. Other schools should think about following the NHSC model and begin addressing their students’ holistic needs. This way, both institutions and students can better serve their communities.
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