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How to Create an Institutional Environment Designed for Traditionally Underserved Learners

The EvoLLLution | How to Create an Institutional Environment Designed for Traditionally Underserved Learners
Colleges and universities have a responsibility to create environments that better suit the needs of non-traditional learners—meaning they need to look at every aspect of their operations through a new lens.
Seeing the tears in Hector’s eyes reminded me of the power of the work we do at SUNY Empire State College. In a video of the college’s Hispanic Heritage Celebration in October, a group of Hispanic students spoke about their experiences as adult learners. A first-generation college student, Hector, talked directly to the camera, recounting how his mother encouraged him to go back to school and finish his college degree. Hector and his sister—both students at Empire State—graduated together in the same ceremony to surprise their mom, who was there to watch. She passed away a few weeks later. The video ended with Hector saying, “Yo soy ESC.” (“I am ESC.”) All of our students should feel that way.

Higher education is notoriously slow to change—a stance that seems at odds with the evolving needs of learners. The student body is changing, representing the new consumers of American higher education as more students like Hector return to complete degrees they may have begun before “life got in the way,” as we frequently hear. New instructional technologies provide better tools to help more diverse populations of students learn and more diverse populations of instructors teach.

The learning styles and needs of traditional and non-traditional students differ in significant ways. Non-traditional students tend to have more competing priorities, so the social role of “student” is not their primary role. Non-traditional students often have family, work and community commitments, in addition to studying. So, time management is one of the critical skills non-traditional students need to succeed.

How do successful higher education institutions address these needs? Basic fundamentals, like expanded class schedules and service hours, can be a deciding factor in whether an institution can realistically accommodate a student. While most colleges and universities utilize their classroom space between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., non-traditional institutions, like SUNY Empire State College, tend to be busiest between 4 and 8:30 p.m. Weekend classes are particularly attractive to non-traditional students, whereas traditional-aged students gravitate toward weekday classes. Extending service hours for support services also creates a friendlier environment for adult students. 

Asynchronous learning through the use of learning management systems (LMS) is another attractive alternative to classroom time for many non-traditional students. The growth of online and hybrid courses in the U.S. over the past 20 years has been staggering. Non-traditional students appreciate both face-to-face interaction and the ability to work at their own pace. They often do their coursework after business hours and sometimes need help or services. A modern LMS will have an early-alert functionality that can warn faculty when a student is falling behind. This is of particular value for non-traditional students, who are often reluctant to ask for help.

Given non-traditional students’ “just in time” need for services, contracting with vendors that provide 24/7 services is often a cost-effective way for colleges and universities to serve their needs. SUNY Empire has experimented with “Jump Start Saturdays,” where students can go to a physical location for help one week into the term. Open Educational Resources (OERs) can help reduce textbook costs, making the overall cost of attendance lower for non-traditional students.

Another way to serve non-traditional students is through accelerated programs and accelerated terms. Accelerated programs are often attractive to non-traditional students because they afford the opportunity to complete a degree quickly. Accelerated terms are offered at many adult-serving colleges and universities. Students can complete a course in five to eight weeks, as opposed to a more traditional 15- or 16-week term. Taking one course every eight weeks, rather than two courses over 16 weeks, gives non-traditional learners a better chance at success—allowing them to focus on a single subject instead of juggling two courses at once.

Microcredentialing is a new way to help non-traditional students demonstrate their skills to employers, while at the same time breaking seemingly unattainable degrees into more manageable chunks. SUNY has moved to the forefront of the microcredentialing movement in higher education. Microcredentials demonstrate the mastery of a skill that is valued by employers. Stackable microcredentials enable students to take a sequence of courses that build on their knowledge, and eventually lead toward a degree or certificate.

Ultimately, non-traditional students like Hector prefer flexible approaches to higher education, but these new approaches must be rigorous to offer value. Non-traditional students want to be challenged, but they also need the ability to fit the educational experience into their lives.

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