community colleges

Community colleges see success with varied semester start dates

Flexible semesters could help nontraditional students complete degrees at community colleges

Nontraditional students make up more than half of today’s higher-ed student body, and community colleges are stepping up to meet their unique needs in big ways.

Research from the American Council on Education shows that almost 60 percent of U.S. undergraduate students are nontraditional, meaning they are 25 or older, work full-time, and have work, family, or other obligations that require flexibility in their educational options.

Depending on their personal or professional obligations, this population of students may need a number of flexible options to see academic success.

In Maine, the state’s hospitality service is usually busy into late September and early October. But this extended idea of the summer job means community college students who work in hospitality aren’t saying goodbye to summer and heading into classrooms in August.

At York County Community College (YCCC), students can take advantage of flexible semester start times to accommodate their work schedules. Students who are enrolled in YCCC’s various hospitality courses can start in late October after the tourists have mostly gone home.

“We have a lot of students in this area who work in the hospitality industry,” says YCCC president Dr. Barbara Finkelstein. “Wells is along the southern coast of Maine and summertime is very hospitality-driven. Most employers want to keep workers here through Columbus Day.”

Within each traditional semester, YCCC embedded two 7-week mini-semesters. The college’s 15-week fall term and first 7-week term began on September 4, and the second 7-week fall term starts on October 29.

“For people in the hospitality industry, by this time things are slowing down, so they can enroll in that later term,” Finkelstein adds. “The majority of our students are part-time students, so this gives them that added flexibility.”

YCCC has had such a good response to its flexible semester start dates that it has added additional sections due to demand.

“Employers are happy, and students are enthusiastic,” Finkelstein says.

Today’s professionals don’t stay with the same company or in the same position as in decades past. Many people change professions and go back to school to earn additional degrees or certifications while still employed. This underscores the need for increased flexibility.

“Many adults returning for additional degrees, classes, or certifications have families, careers, and other commitments, meaning the amount of time they can devote to taking classes is limited,” writes Dr. Christine Sobek, president of Waubonsee Community College in Illinois.

Waubonsee Community College offers self-paced open entry courses and online courses to accommodate different student scheduling needs. Eight- and 12-week courses, offered in person and online, help students maintain their outside obligations without sacrificing educational goals.

“Responsive scheduling allows faculty and staff to provide quality teaching and learning options that truly match our students’ needs,” Sobek writes.

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Laura Ascione

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