Community college invests in Latinx and adult learners

Community college invests in Latinx and adult learners

Waubonsee Community College in Illinois is launching a five-year campaign to increase enrollment and completion rates for Latinx students and working adults.

College leaders announced today that the institution received a $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education dedicated to increasing the institution’s capacity to serve Latinx learners. Waubonsee is a Hispanic-serving institution with a student population that was 31.4 percent Latinx in fall 2020, according to the college’s website. The latest data from the National Center for Education Statistics show 27 percent of Waubonsee students were age 25 and older in fall 2019.

“As the demographics of our communities and higher education continue to shift, it’s critical that student support adapts to meet the needs of fast-growing student populations, including working adults and Latinx students,” Christine Sobek, president of Waubonsee, said in a press release. “This work is about better understanding the student journey—as adults, Latinx, and other historically excluded populations experience it—and transforming our approach to coaching, advising, and creating streamlined pathways to a degree or credential.”

The college will develop strategies to improve academic outcomes for these students in partnership with InsideTrack, an organization that helps colleges and universities increase student enrollment, college completion and career readiness. The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, which works with higher education institutions to better serve adult students, will also be partner in this initiative.

Admissions staff members and academic advisers at the college will get training and certification in best practices to support Latinx and adult students from the two nonprofit organizations. Other staff members and 15 administrators will also be trained in foundational coaching skills. The goal is to teach staff ways to holistically assess and address possible obstacles to graduation.

Mo McKenna, director of partner development at InsideTrack, said academic advisers often focus solely on academic logistics—how to get students through the admissions process, how to register them for classes, what courses they should take—without taking into account other factors that play a role in student success, such as their paid work and family responsibilities, among other issues.

Older adult learners especially are “balancing a lot,” she said. “They’re working, they’re likely to have families, they’re oftentimes responsible for a lot of other things. If you’re not comfortable assessing around and advancing a student on those other areas of life, if you’re just talking about academics, you’re oftentimes missing the most important things that put a student’s retention at risk.”

Administrators and staff members will have to do the “tough work” of reorienting their approach to student advising and supports as a part of this initiative, she added.

“We’re asking staff to change what they’re doing every day, and it’s hard,” she said. “It’s hard for us to change how we do our work. Processes are going to need to change … it’s all going to have to change if you’re expecting different outcomes for students.”

InsideTrack experts are conducting focus groups and interviews with faculty and staff members right now to assess how the college is currently serving students and what they believe needs to change. The organization will share feedback with college administrators based on those conversations in January and begin training staff members in February. The spring semester will be focused on foundational coaching skills, followed by training specifically related to supports for Latinx students and working adults.

The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning will also help the college develop a model that counts adult learners’ prior work experience as college credits so these students can graduate faster and at lower costs.

Offering college credits based on prior learning heightens the chances that students, especially Latinx and adult learners, will complete their programs, according to a 2020 report by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education and CAEL. The report, which examined student outcomes data at 72 colleges and universities, found that giving adult learners college credits for prior learning increased their likelihood of graduating by 17 percent. The practice increased the likelihood Pell Grant recipients graduating by 19 percent, Latinx students by 24 percent and community college students by 25 percent.

“This collaboration will equip Waubonsee Community College’s staff and advisors to recognize work and life experience that qualifies for college credit and thereby reduce cost and time required of Latinx students and all adult learners,” Earl Buford, president of CAEL, said in a press release. “As a result, they will be even more responsive to students’ needs and understanding of their complex family, academic and career commitments.”

Martha Parham, senior vice president of public relations at the American Association of Community Colleges, said these efforts to remove potential barriers that keep students from completing college are much needed.

“What Waubonsee is doing, and what some other colleges are doing, is really taking a look at the student population that they serve and the population of their community and really trying to put some strategies in place to ensure that those students” ultimately graduate, she said.

Students of color and older adult learners at community colleges nationwide have been among those most affected by the financial hardships and academic challenges caused by the pandemic. Community colleges had a 7.3 percent decline in enrollment of Latinx students in spring 2021 compared to spring 2020, according to National Student Clearinghouse Research Center data. Enrollment of community college students between age 25 and 29 fell by 8.4 percent over the same time period.

Parham said the challenges faced by these students, such as food insecurity and childcare responsibilities, preceded the pandemic, as did community college leaders’ efforts to identify equity gaps and improve student success metrics. But “the pandemic really brought into very clear focus what those barriers were, and colleges have been doing a lot of work to try to eliminate them.”

As the Latinx student population continues to grow across the country, college leaders nationally are increasingly focused on offering culturally responsive supports to retain them, Parham noted.

College administrators and state lawmakers have also undertaken major efforts to enroll and retain adult learners at community colleges. For example, five community colleges in the North Carolina Community College System recently launched a campaign to re-enroll up to 12,000 students between 25 and 44 years old. Michigan community colleges also received more than 67,000 applications from students ages 25 and older after the state launched a tuition-free college program for adult residents last February.

McKenna said she sees more college leaders turning their attention to retaining adult learners in response to pandemic enrollment declines and as the population of traditional-age students continues falling, as demographic trends indicate it will.

She also believes nationwide protests in response to the murder of George Floyd in summer 2020 spurred campus administrators to focus on increasing supports for students of color. She noted that Waubonsee’s campaign echoes similar initiatives at colleges and universities across the country.

College leaders have been galvanized by “long-term enrollment declines coupled with the pandemic coupled with the cultural reckoning around these systems and how we need to change them,” she said. “We’re excited to see that folks are getting serious about making change.”

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