Published on 2016/05/24

It Takes More than Convenient Hours: Working with Highly Non-Traditional Students (Part 2)

Co-Written with Emilia Diamant | Executive Director, Jeremiah-Endicott Program and Marcelo Juica | Director, Endicott College-Boston

The EvoLLLution | It Takes More than Convenient Hours: Working with Highly Non-Traditional Students (Part 1)
By implementing intentional and focused strategies aimed at responding to the unique needs of non-traditional students, colleges and universities can do more to support the success of their new traditional learners.

This is the conclusion of the two-part series by Brian Pellinen, Emilia Diamant and Marcelo Juica discussing how Endicott College Boston has shaped itself, with the help of the Jeremiah Program, to create an engaging environment for non-traditional students focused on supporting their success. In the first installment, Pellinen, Diamant and Juica outlined the first two of their five insights into how they support non-traditional student success. This conclusion outlines the remaining three.

3. We must coach students on college engagement expectations.

While the confirmation of a college degree (associate or bachelor) might be, in the end, the accumulation of a determined number of credits, students do not instinctively know the level of commitment needed to earn those credits. In busy, busy lives (and here we are making an assumption that most non-traditional learners have more complicated lives than traditional students) school is one of many critical things they are trying to balance. However, if one can only show up to half of the classes, they don’t receive half of the credits, they receive no credits! This is obvious to those of us who live and work in higher education, but it isn’t obvious to all students.

The expectations that faculty might have when major projects are due, things like the need to take time and perhaps sacrifice an entire weekend, might seem completely unfair to a busy adult.

The disconnects between our expectations as a college program and the expectations of many first-time students are bigger than we think. Often, when a student first realizes the level of commitment needed in college, he or she will imagine the current life but with just more things crammed into it. In our experience, this is a place where coaching can be helpful. The coach can help the students start to see that to be successful in college, life and priorities will need to change. There isn’t time to add another 20 hours of work into an already full life unless something else can come off the list. Through coaching and the interactions with other students in the cohort, students can see that others, just like them, can be and have been successful.

4. We need to better prepare students for college-level work.

It can come as no surprise that students coming to school after a long break or from non-traditional paths—more often than traditional college students—will need remedial and preparatory coursework. This has been the topic of many reports and much focus in community colleges. It is, however, also something to be intentionally addressed in programs based at state and private four-year colleges. Traditional faculty at these four-year colleges are often unaware of the volume of developmental-level work being done at community colleges or that so many students in the United States need to take these courses. At Endicott Boston we have tried a variety of approaches that seem to give us slightly better-than-predicted results (when compared to national trends). For example, we offer some of the pre-099 levels of developmental coursework as non-credit classes. It avoids the higher tuition costs, and it doesn’t set up students who don’t yet have the reading and writing skills to be in college for failure. We keep classes small—8 to 12 students. And we try, while students are in these classes, to coach about options they have to speed up credit.

One way to do this—acquire credits faster AND build on the skills and life experience that non-traditional students DO bring into the classroom—is to make students aware of the various credit options available via programs and organizations, like the American Council of Education and CLEP exams, and also how they might participate in our Assessment of Prior Learning process.

At Endicott Boston we also believe that we have to create stigma-free expectations for using tutoring. Many teachers, especially in classes with high percentages of new students, will have all of the students work with tutors on specific projects. We also have tutoring in the students’ computer lab so that there isn’t another place the students need to go to access support. Understanding where students are in terms of their writing development and helping them build their skills cannot come only from the first-year writing professors. The understanding has to be more intentional, structural and constantly reinforced.

5. Safe, comfortable space is important.

Early in our work, as we learned more about our specific student population, we were confronted with the multiple challenges our students had in doing homework. There were challenges with technology access at home, which we solved with an affordable laptop (Chromebook) program.  But this alone didn’t solve the bigger challenge: that many students lacked a safe, comfortable, quiet enough space to think, read and write. If their home lives are crowded or hectic, doing “homework” at home might not be an option. Many of our students are working long hours, and between school and work, the only time available at home conducive for studying is at night, when they themselves desperately need sleep.

With our open computer lab/tutoring center, many students are able to stay after classes, or many will come in on non-class days to use the space for quiet study. We have a refrigerator, microwave, etc., so eating and studying can go hand in hand.

However, for our many parenting students, our campus space for homework was not ideal. They had responsibilities at home with their children and couldn’t bring them into the study lab. To address this, in spring 2016 Jeremiah Program opened a Boston facility that was designed primarily as a family-friendly study and gathering space. The new facility, Warren House, is a great place for the families to continue to build social capital, share responsibilities watching children, and meet with coaches and tutors so projects can get done. This type of space is tough for an academic institution to build, but in partnership with non-profits like Jeremiah Program, the spaces are more manageable and we see how incredibly important they are.

Shifting From “Non-Traditional” to Traditional

There are other critical pieces to serving students with multiple non-traditional characteristics, including training of administrative staff and faculty; a better understanding of how outside stress leads to certain student reactions in school; a commitment to open, honest dialogue about how to afford college; and an institutional commitment to keep students out of debt upon graduation. All of these are critical things we must continue to do to improve programs where non-traditional students become an institution’s traditional population.

Both Jeremiah Program and Endicott College Boston staff realize that success is centered on the idea of each student as a unique individual with strengths and challenges. We also all realize that education is multi-generational work. An individual is shaped by their community’s views and resources. We realize and trust in the idea that as one person in a community starts to see things in a new way, others around them will as well. The stories we hear about the Jeremiah-Endicott students studying and “going to college together” with their children give us hope that all of us can make large impacts in historically underserved communities. There is a compounding effect in education. Skills can be built on skills and although there might not be an overnight solution to our college success gap, there is one that, if we all start now, can be enormous in a decade.

As a strategy for bestpractices we recommend that colleges and universities implement intentional programs for non-traditional students that ensure coaching and academic advising. Borrow the expertise from the community and non-profit organizations that are already working with many of our ideal students. Form partnerships and work with them. It’s also important to engage the non-traditional students themselves in planning and building programs as they are their own best advocates.

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