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Developing the Right Programming for Non-Traditional Learners: The Regional Approach

One size does not fit all when it comes to supporting learners in different regions. Programming needs to be designed to meet the specific needs of learners and employers in your area. 

Students’ learning needs can be vastly different depending on what kind of student they are (traditional vs non-traditional) and which region they live in. Industry demand in California could be very different from Pennsylvania, and that means that a universal approach to education doesn’t work. By focusing on each region’s specific needs, colleges and universities can create the right programs for their communities. In this interview, Vic Rodgers discusses the challenges that come with developing programming for non-traditional learners, the importance of a having regional approach, and how to ensure that learners understand the pathways available to them to get back into the workforce fast and efficiently. 

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are some of the key obstacles that you’ve observed when it comes to developing programs and support services for non-traditional and non-credit learners?

Vic Rodgers (VR): One of the biggest obstacles, of course, is funding. Most non-credit or non-traditional training does not follow a Pell Grant formula, so there’s no financial aid available for those types of programs. Often, the people who want to avail themselves of training through non-credit or non-traditional programs are people looking for employment right away. They don’t have time for the traditional, collegiate journey of taking two, four or six years to get their education. They don’t want to be in a dorm; they’re not there for that. They’re there to transition directly into the workforce. 

These are people who need more support than traditional students. Without consistent funding, we have to turn to grants, scholarships and other often inconsistent revenue streams because of the very nature of funding. When we look at what’s happening now, especially in discussions around equity and access, this is a huge barrier to those who need it the most.

Evo: How do you structure your staff’s work—or the design of support services—to ensure folks achieve outcomes they want while being cognizant of the fact they aren’t subsidized? 

VR: First, you need leadership that recognizes that non-traditional students are going to need different support pathways. For example, access to technology is normally a given for credit students, but we’ve got to work around that. We’ve been really lucky and believe that the National Council for Continuing Education and Training (NCCET) is going to be able to model some best practices for getting access to technology to those who need it most, as well as an accompanying support system.  When you have people working two or three minimum-wage jobs to try to make things work for them and their families, and they see education and training as an opportunity to change that situation, how and when do they access that?

We must ensure that opportunities exist in a non-traditional format for non-traditional students. You cannot operate on the traditional 8 AM to 5 PM schedule. You have to be flexible and understand your student population’s needs. Make sure that you look for accommodations where you can. Oftentimes, a college alone will not have the resources to do that, so partnerships are key. These could be partnerships with community organizations, local workforce development boards or other institutions of higher ed with whom you share common missions. That’s one of the reasons I’m excited about NCCET–we’re looking at ways to stretch those resources to members and those who want to access our services.

Evo: What kind of work is NCCET doing support the growth of continuing ed at community colleges and to make some of these challenges more navigable?

VR: I’m fairly new to NCCET, but I’m familiar with the organization, and I like the direction that we’re headed in. NCCET has a nationwide reach, which helps us focus on individual regional issues. It makes so much more sense to look at the resources, best practices and corporate and business partnerships that we have within a region. Typically, what we’ll see is that regions face the same challenges. If you’re in the South, you have the same challenges as you do in the Northeast. They might have little shades of differences, but overall, we’re speaking the same languages.

So, NCCET can be the host, if you will, to get all of these disparate entities together. The one to come up with some common uses for resources that can be employed across the region. That’s how we can have the most impact–because no single entity is going to be able to address the workforce challenges that we all are seeing right now, especially coming out of a pandemic. No one has the kind of lift in their bank of resources to be able to say, “We can be all things to everyone.” So the regional approach allows us to hold hands with other organizations and say, “You might have some things that I need and vice versa. We can make it work from there.”

Evo: What are some fundamental differences at the regional level you might see in different areas and how will the regional approach support colleges in your area and then create a more national movement?

VR: I’ll use the same analogy as before. The South has specific needs from a workforce side. The Northeast might have a different specific need–maybe more manufacturing or energy production. So, each region’s top two or three industries differ from another’s because of geography and industrial base.

So, that’s where the regional approach comes in–because one size doesn’t fit all in terms of serving our corporate and business partners throughout the United States. If we don’t do the regional approach, then regions are left to try products and best practices used in other regions, which are likely not going to work well. There are some regional segments in there that we’ve got to address. We need to be relevant. If the industries in that region don’t see you as an asset, then you can’t be very effective. 

Evo: How much pressure is on staff to help students understand specific career outcomes, aligned with education offerings, to help navigate the various pathways that are right for them?

VR: If you look back several years ago, a college was measured by how many programs it had–whether they made sense or not. When a student comes in, especially a non-traditional student, and sees this myriad of opportunities, they don’t know which to pick. And the systems are sometimes so big that advisors are unable to direct them appropriately. So, what we try to do, especially in the workforce development arena, is create the pathways to show students where their career cluster could lead.  Again, we’re dealing with people who in many cases don’t have the luxury of sitting in class for the next however many years. They just need a credential that will help gain them employment. They can come back to school later to move up to the next rung on the ladder. 

That’s really how we try to focus on in workforce development. A lot of our non-traditional students are coming to use for entry-level employment. But if we leave them at the entry level, they’ll never get out of poverty. They’ll never see the opportunities that the American system affords them, as long as you know how to navigate it. That’s part of the challenge that community colleges face right now. But, it’s exciting.

Evo: When it comes to the community service mission of a community college, how important is a well-functioning workforce development division to actually executing it?

VR: It’s critical in today’s environment that the workforce development entities within a community college see themselves as an entirely different component of college offerings – still connected to the school but with a different mission. We serve business and industry by supplying business and industry with what they need to be successful, which is a skilled workforce. And we then serve that community mission by saying, “Hey, we can get you into the type of jobs that change your life’s trajectory by giving you sick leave, retirement, good pay and benefits.” If you don’t have that within a community college, you’re really not living up to what’s in the word, which is community.

That’s part of the college mission, and workforce development is uniquely situated to address that. We don’t use a lot of the metrics used on our credit side because of accreditation and other issues. The credit side needs to have those metrics in place, and they sometimes become barriers of entry. Those barriers don’t exist in a well-functioning workforce development division. We smooth that pathway out and remove those barriers. We take training to an industry site, to a community center, a housing authority–wherever the need is for that skill. We’re nimble and flexible enough to make that happen. With non-traditional students, that’s what you have to do to be effective.


This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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