Published on 2014/03/04

Cohorts: A New Generation of Diverse Non-Traditional Learners

Cohorts: A New Generation of Diverse Non-Traditional Learners
As non-traditional student cohorts become more diverse, the nature of the higher education experience is beginning to transform.
The landscape of non-traditional higher education has experienced an increasingly diverse community of learners clustered in cohorts. A cohort is typically a group of students who enter a program of study together, share common learning experiences during a specified time period and complete the program at the end of that specified time period. Cohorts were popular in use from the 1940s to the 1960s; they regained favor in the 1980s and have been in place within non-traditional education to the present.[1] Cohorts assume a continuity that builds a stable community, which often makes cohort programs successful in non-traditional learning environments through clear course sequences and structure, increased contact with instructors and supportive peer groups. For higher education institutions, program delivery methods are relatively inexpensive and administratively manageable.

There is a new generation of cohorts whose members possess a wide-ranging degree of difference in age, ethnicity, race, gender, disability, nationality, sexual orientation and socioeconomic status. Today, cohorts consist of non-traditional students who work either on or off campus. They are designed to attract students who wish to complete a degree close to home.

Benefits and Challenges of Cohorts

Cohorts are generally characterized as growth oriented, cooperative in nature and intensively and exclusively program focused. Students work together to achieve set goals and experiences. Cohort members tend to collaborate, interact, exchange resources, share information and support one another in and out of the classroom. On the other hand, students who do not “fit in” with the group may feel pushed out or overpowered by a strong, cohesive group. Cohorts, like some aspects of society, may be places of power struggles, clique mentality and marginalization. In successful cohorts, faculty and administration work to prevent the barriers to group development through culturally-diverse and inclusive practices. Intentional strategies in recruitment and retention may include principles of cultural awareness, intergroup dialogue and culturally-relevant teaching practices.

Inclusive Practices in Cohort Programming

Inclusive practices in cohort programming may inform the needs and interests of adult learners for persistence, satisfaction and degree completion. Cohorts offer more than just convenience for institutions and students; they can provide intense learning experiences through culturally-diverse interactions. Cohorts positively influence student values, increase student interaction and secure greater interdependence through team building, mutual support and collaboration. Students can develop a respect for, and an appreciation of, the different members of the group. Group work builds tolerance and awareness of diversity, new ideas and opinions. As more and more adults take part in cohort education experiences, it remains imperative for higher education to recognize the impact of increasing diversity in the individual and group contexts. Given the mission of most cohort education programs to be responsive to the needs of communities and underrepresented populations, cohorts can be supportive systems for student persistence and educational success.

Institutional Support

Because adult cohort models have been administratively flexible and cost effective, educational institutions are increasing their use of instructional delivery strategies that address the unique needs of students in such programs. Such delivery strategies include online, blended and off-campus, face-to-face formats. Cohorts, by nature, often operate outside of the standard institutional systems, policies and procedures, in that classes may be offered differently to this group than to traditional on-campus populations. Therefore, program planners for cohorts may need to serve as advocates for their programs and for the academic and support services needed to meet the unique needs of these students. Traditional educational institutions that accept more non-traditional learners may need to come up to speed on the characteristics of such students, and may also need to raise general awareness, sensitivity and respect of the needs, goals and expectations of these students.

Cohort programs may require academic and student affairs offices to work together to support students in new and different ways. It may be necessary to identify champions in both divisions to work together to forge the path and educate their colleagues. For the institutions using cohorts well, institutional and program planning of cohort models can serve as best practice guides for other universities seeking to serve students in cohort programs more effectively. Cohorts, just like the higher educational institutions they represent, are subject to gatekeeping or the act of granting or restricting access to educational opportunities. Cohort models — because of their supportive, convenient nature and make up — attract diverse students. Institutions must also be prepared to cultivate an environment that welcomes and builds on the benefits afforded to institutional culture by such diversity.

The nature of non-traditional higher education is increasingly diverse in people, ideas, information and prior skills and knowledge. This in turn affects students, educators and institutions in terms of access, success, retention, program completion, curriculum, culture and even alumni and donor relations. As cohorts continue to evolve, they influence the individual student and faculty experience, the programmatic endeavors and the institutional mission and culture.

As for the future of cohorts, institutions need to ask the following questions:

  • What are the roadblocks, challenges or disincentives that potential cohort students encounter?
  • Is there a cohort mission at the institution, and is it reflected in the strategic plans of the university and the academic colleges, schools and departments?
  • How can the system (institution) support the cohort mission?
  • What new initiatives, systems, processes and resources must the institution establish — or what existing activities can be tapped — to support cohorts?

There is much to consider for these new generations of cohorts, as cohorts can add a rich academic and cultural dynamic to the institution.

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[1] I.M. Saltiel and C.S. Russo, Cohort Programming and Learning. Malabar, Florida: Kreiger Publishing Company, 2001

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Readers Comments

Tawna Regehr 2014/03/04 at 1:20 pm

For the most part, I agree with Callaghan’s analysis. However, I could imagine scenarios where cohorts might not be the preferred model for adult learners. For example, certain groups (first-generation students, low-income students) are more likely to ‘stop out’ for a time and return later to finish their education, meaning they wouldn’t necessarily be graduating with the cohort they stared with. This can be an alienating experience. What this reveals is the need to offer support outside of, or independent of, the cohort a student belongs to.

Hickson R 2014/03/05 at 10:14 am

One of the best ways to engage adult learners and promote greater group/cohort cohesion is to offer a more diverse curriculum that reflects the individuals within the cohort. This doesn’t necessarily require substantive effort by the institution (although I don’t want to downplay the importance of formalizing a diversity mandate in your institution’s curriculum design at some point). What I mean is, instructors may be able to creatively design assignments so that they are flexible enough for students to demonstrate diversity in their responses.

Gary Stocker 2014/03/05 at 9:53 pm

I see enough learning and life challenges with my adult students at a medium-sized university to believe that the cohort model is one to pursue. The supportive nature and relationship-building environment that we saw suggests to me that there is value in the model.

The best practice we found with a corporate-based cohort was to start with a somewhat larger initial number at the start of the cohort group. With that approach, the attrition factor was not an issue for the viability of the group.

For those that left our cohorts, we were inconsistent in our ability to plug them into a subsequent cohort in the same degree program at a later date. Still thinking about that one.

Charlene L 2014/03/06 at 9:37 am

I thought we were trying to move away from cohorts, to a model where we allow students to enter in and stop out at any time that’s convenient for them in pursuit of a credential?

It’s all well and good to shape the cohort model to fit non-traditional students. But if we’re in the business of making new models… why not just make a new model?

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