We had a standing rule in my house when I was working on my degree: on Fridays after work, I would disappear to my bedroom and not come out until my homework or research papers were done for the week.
Sometimes this meant I was free in time for Friday movie night, and other times it meant I was still working as my family prepared on Sunday for the next school week. Indeed, there were sacrifices, but I had a spouse who had the flexibility to serve as the sole parent running to soccer games and singing lessons or buying groceries over the weekend.
Looking back, I realize how lucky I was. I had supportive people in my personal life, a job that allowed me the opportunity to grow professionally in my field, and a salary that paid well enough to work just one job, so I could find the balance I needed to focus on my academics.
Post-traditional students face unique challenges
This is just what it’s like to be a post-traditional learner: parenting responsibilities, professional responsibilities, and academic responsibilities are kept in the air like juggling balls, seemingly changing in weight without notice. Most of today’s students aren’t as fortunate as I was. The support I received from my personal and professional allies meant that I didn’t have to count on my college to accommodate my complex responsibilities.
It isn’t hard to imagine how easily my efforts could have been derailed. Today’s students find classes aren’t available when they need them, and they’re penalized when they have to miss class for commitments like caring for a sick child at home or covering a shift change at work. They may be struggling to secure basic needs such as housing or food, and they often feel like they have little support on campus.
Their paths may feel nearly endless due to necessary part-time enrollment and programs with few milestones to celebrate progress along the way. And finally, they often bring a wealth of experiences that too often go unrecognized for college credit. Colleges must be flexible and adapt to today’s learners. Fortunately, opportunities abound for aligning offerings and support to the students they seek to serve.
Not only do students feel ill-supported in their seemingly endless path, they also often don’t find their career goals reflected in the classroom. It can be difficult to make connections between topics like science, math, or history to long-term professional goals. Yet, when students sacrifice time from their professional or personal responsibilities to attend class, they want to feel as though they are getting closer to the careers they seek.
Support for post-traditional students is more important than ever
The post-traditional student population is vast—some reports suggest they account for up to 85% of all students—and these learners are more likely to attend community colleges than four-year schools. Post-traditional students represent the changing face of higher education today. Colleges are increasingly racially diverse, have students from all income levels, and include special populations such as parenting students and veterans, but current data suggest colleges are not serving these students well. Just 37.5% of community college students will earn a degree after six years, and completion rates are heavily correlated to race (the attainment rate for White students is 46.5%, Asian students 46.8%, Hispanic students 35%, and Black students 26%). This is especially concerning because EAB analysis suggests that from Fall 2017 forward, public two-year institutions will enroll more minority students than white students.
Many community college leaders have accepted enrollment declines as an inevitable part of the recession cycle. But we are not going to see growing numbers of 18- to 21-year-olds who plan to live on campus and stay dependent on their parents. So, let the current enrollment declines serve as a call to action. The rate of student stop-outs since the recession demonstrates that students perceive the challenges of continued enrollment to outweigh the benefits of fulfilling their academic goals.
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Community colleges today must demonstrate their ability to support post-traditional learners’ goals: a promising career that will offer secure (and hopefully recession-proof) careers. Our latest white paper provides 13 strategies for addressing the needs of post-traditional learners. From early career advising and adapting the college to working students, to preparing students for employment in unexpected ways, the research has identified low-dangling fruit for nearly any community college.
Now is the time to demonstrate to students that periods of economic prosperity should not stop progress toward their career goals. Instead, colleges should reflect those professional aspirations throughout the student experience.