Supporting Students: Making Models of Success the New Norm for Non-Traditional Students
Joey Fernandez is in his final semester at LaGuardia Community College. He plans to transfer to a four-year institution to pursue his dream of international relations. Joey’s story is just one of so many non-traditional students whose determination and drive, when coupled with a supportive learning environment, can produce transformational success.
Joey struggled with severe anxiety while attending public school in upper Manhattan. He left school before completing the ninth grade. Having dropped out Joey returned to Dominican Republic for a year but dreamed of coming back to his life in New York. Upon his return to the states Joey got a GED and decided to leave his neighborhood to keep from getting into trouble. He then started his higher educational journey at LaGuardia. If it were not for the kindness of his uncle who provided him a place to live he could not have attended college. Financial aid covered tuition, but that’s it. Lack of finances is a difficult barrier to student success because it places many students in survival mode. It often forces them to focus on work instead of school. Thankfully because of an institutional scholarship and the stipend Joey gets from his on-campus employment, he is able to maintain his attendance.
Making college life feasible is an important part of a student success strategy. While helpful, providing optional financial literacy awareness programming is insufficient. Embedding opportunities for students to make financial plans alongside their academic plans, providing on-campus employment, and targeting scholarship dollar investments at points on the student’s path when we know their aid will run out are three feasibility-enhancing strategies worth serious consideration.
Transition to college was not easy for Joey given his weak academic foundation. In fact, he walked into his math class not having had high school algebra and thus had to learn both high school and college-level algebra at the same time. If it wasn’t for the time he spent with his faculty members and peer tutors in the math lab, helping him to learn the study skills within the math class, Joey says he’s not sure if he would have done so well. Many community college students struggle with basic skills issues. Embedding study skills in content courses and leveraging the power of peers in supplemental instruction enhance student retention and success.
Given that almost 60 percent of community college students take at least one developmental course during their time at the community college, helping them pass the initial gateway courses must be a high priority. Remedial classes are too often a hurdle for aspiring college students. They often can’t enroll in credit courses until passing their remedial classes, but many don’t pass them on the first try—which can lead to feelings of discouragement and dropping out, or spending precious financial aid on non-credit remedial courses. According to NCES data, nearly half of all community college students placed in a remedial class(es) don’t complete the course(s).
The City University of New York (CUNY) and the State University of New York (SUNY) systems have both had demonstrable success with several student success models that integrate comprehensive student support elements. One example is the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP); the key aspects of ASAP that make student success possible, particularly for non-traditional students like Joey are:
- Comprehensive consideration of students’ needs in/out of the classroom from entrance through graduation. This includes financial resources to remove barriers to full-time study, structured and consolidated course schedules, and integrated, comprehensive and required student support services.
- Helping students gain and maintain academic momentum; this includes requiring a full-time course load each semester, addressing any remedial needs immediately/continuously, mandated tutoring for those with remedial needs or who are struggling academically, and aggressive promotion of winter and summer course taking.
- Deep commitment and regular use of data to measure student success and program efficacy; this includes specific benchmarks for student outcomes at every level from initial enrollment through graduation and program services; the central office team and campus program staff regularly examine and discuss data and use it not only for reporting and formal evaluation efforts, but also to inform programming.
At SUNY, students in the Educational Opportunity Program receive support services like academic, career, and personal counseling, tutoring and supplemental instruction. As part of a student’s overall financial aid package, the Educational Opportunity Program provides financial assistance for non-tuition related expenses (e.g. books, supplies, etc.).
Both CUNY and SUNY and others around the country that are forward thinking have begun these approaches recognizing that there must be institutional intentionality in helping non-traditional students succeed. The rise of campus-based food pantries to address food insecurity, new opportunities for students transitioning from foster care, students in greater need of on-campus child care, students returning from military service, adult learners, and formerly incarcerated students seeking educational opportunities continue to redefine non-traditional as the new normal. That means innovative models to support these students must become the new normal.
Finally, non-traditional students need role models and support systems. Faculty play a critical role. They matter. A social science professor made a big difference in Joey’s trajectory. With the encouragement and support of the faculty member Joey applied for and was accepted into the Charles B. Rangel International Affairs Summer Program, a very selective national program that accepts only 15 students each year. It’s designed to encourage undergraduate students to explore and study careers in international affairs and foreign policy. This summer Joey will spend six weeks in Washington, D.C. and attend classes/seminars where he will be able to enhance his skills, knowledge and understanding of foreign policy, economics and writing, while also learning about the various pathways to careers in this field. He will also have an opportunity to visit the State Department, Department of Defense and various think tanks.
There are many Joeys who are hopeful and hard working. What makes a meaningful difference for them is being in a supportive learning environment. Embedding student services to support student success using many of the models shared in this article can help non-traditional students navigate the obstacles they often face en route to a degree. The success of our nation is inextricably tied to the investments we make in fostering the development of great minds that will contribute to the greater good. When we support our students we support the power of possibility. There are few greater investments we can make.
Author Perspective: Community College