As higher ed eyes adult learners, community colleges add supports

Two-year institutions are looking beyond academics to create guided pathways to help this coveted group of students graduate or transfer.

Community colleges have historically been viewed as second fiddle to four-year institutions. But in recent years they have been pulled into the spotlight for being particularly well-positioned to meet growing demand among previously underserved markets of postsecondary students, namely adult learners.

That attention has led educators and policymakers to see enrollees in the nation's some 1,103 community colleges — about half the students in higher ed today — as being in need of more customized instruction, better support systems and clearer pathways to a workforce that is clamoring for them.

Underlying the need for more support is the "dizzying array" of demands these students face, according to a recent survey of more than 50,000 students at 10 community colleges. They include the need to hold a job and meet the needs of family, as well as academic obstacles ranging from costly, ineffective remedial classes to poorly designed online courses that don't offer enough help.

What's more, pushback on rising tuition prices and growth in free college initiatives has put community colleges in a position to need to cater to a wide variety of students. Some suggest this change has triggered an "identity crisis" within those institutions, with many being asked to shift resources to efficiently provide job-specific degrees and skill sets as well as clearer transfer paths to a four-year degree.

In response, community colleges are adopting structured pathways and a case-management model that offers broad academic and personal supports, said Josh Wyner, vice president at The Aspen Institute and founder and executive director of its College Excellence Program.

"About 80% of community college students say they want a degree, but only about 20% complete it. Life gets in the way," he said. "They need clear, efficient, useful pathways, and sitting alongside them they need support so they have real momentum toward their degree and beyond."

Read the full article about community colleges by James Paterson at Education Dive.