Published on 2016/03/08
The EvoLLLution | Serving Today’s Students: Moving Past Assumptions
As non-traditional students shift to become the majority market, institutions need to work to understand the unique needs of this demographic and invest in the services and systems necessary to support their success.

When you picture today’s college student, what comes to mind? The image search on my favorite search engine popped up pictures of earnest-looking young people, roughly 18 to 22 years old, clutching textbooks or chatting with friends, amidst brick buildings and verdant lawns. Most of them appeared to be white, and most were smiling, although a few were holding their heads in their hands, poring over a textbook and looking stressed. Those images, however, fail to accurately depict the current reality of many college students.

As a recent study by the National Center for Education Statistics reveals, yesterday’s “non-traditional” undergraduate student is the majority today, with the following characteristics:

  • More than one third are over the age of 25
  • Nearly half are independent from their parents
  • Nearly half are enrolled part time
  • More than one third are black, Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander or American Indian/Alaska Native.
  • 40 percent are from families with a total family income of less than 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Line.
  • Three quarters are working either full-time (32 percent) or part-time (43 percent).
  • Nearly a quarter are parents, and 1 in 8 are single parents.

In terms of the 45 percent of U.S. undergraduates who are enrolled in community colleges, the previously non-traditional characteristics are all the more pronounced, with 63 percent over the age of 22; 51 percent identifying as Hispanic, Black, Asian/Pacific Islander, Native American, 2 or more races, or other; 36 percent are the first in their families to attend college; and have an average age of 28.

With such a broad range of students, how can a college respond to the varying needs and expectations of students? First, it’s important to recognize that students of all backgrounds seek engaging educational experiences that challenge them and prepare them for their life after college. Current research on effective pedagogy tells us that effective teaching and learning methods provide information via multiple modalities, contextualize new information within a framework to which students can relate, and offer opportunities for both cooperative learning as well as deep independent engagement.

At the same time, students bring all of their varied life experiences with them to the classroom, including their skills, fears, preferences and cultures. And the many students bringing previously non-traditional experiences to campus require us to re-think our programs and services. At Onondaga Community College, we offer a variety of services that have been the backbone of student programming for decades: orientation for new students, academic advising and tutoring services. But even in these typical services, we seek ways to reach more students, including students who may not be able to spend much time on campus due to family and/or work responsibilities.

For example, orientation programs are offered throughout the summer as well as just before classes begin, to provide students and families a variety of options to get acquainted with the campus, and programming is offered to meet the needs of both residential and commuter students. These programs provide “just-in-time” information, so that students receive the information they need at the appropriate times throughout their enrollment cycle. Academic advising is offered to all students, with additional personalized outreach and support for students enrolled in developmental coursework, who often require more conversations to help focus their studies on an academic program that fits their goals. And tutoring is provided in-person, online, and/or via video-conference, throughout day, evening, and weekend hours.

In the classroom, OCC professors are developing strategies to shift from a lecture format to a more contextualized and collaborative format. For example, developmental English and math courses are offered in an accelerated and learner-centered format, professors are “flipping” their classrooms, and the new WhiTn3y Commons integrates teaching, technology, and teamwork into business classes to prepare students for the collaborative learning environments and workplaces in their futures.

Finally, we are developing a Community Care Hub, a new initiative which brings together a variety of wraparound services that many of today’s students need in order to be able to focus on their studies. The Community Care Hub includes a food pantry, as well as access to community resources such as free legal services, health insurance navigation, organizations serving individuals with disabilities, public assistance programs, and tax preparation assistance. A recent study by the Wisconsin Hope Lab found that 61 percent of the college students they surveyed met the federal definition of food insecurity, and one in four community college students said they had not eaten for a full day because they didn’t have enough money. Further, 28 percent of community college students in this study were unable to pay their mortgage or rent on time during the past year, and 10 percent had lost utility services at some point during the past year. With these levels of financial insecurity, access to services is critical to student success.

Amidst local, state, and federal calls to hold colleges accountable for retention, graduation, transfer, and job outcomes, paying attention to the needs of students makes good economic and political sense. More than that, though, all institutions should look to their missions, which generally speak to the public good and to the improvement of our students and our communities. If we are to achieve our missions as educational institutions preparing students for their roles in our society, we have to address the needs of all of our students. A truly inclusive web search for images of college students would include some of those earnest-looking younger students, and it would also include students dropping children off at day care, students taking public transportation to college, hungry students, students of all ages, many more students of color, students struggling to make ends meet, and, if we do our jobs right, students persevering with the support from their colleges. Let’s all work to make that happen.

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