The Hechinger Report - Welcoming adult students of color

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Delece Smith-Barrow

By Olivia Sanchez

The coronavirus pandemic left no one unscathed, but Black, Hispanic and Indigenous adults have suffered disproportionately.
 
They lost jobs, fell ill and died at higher rates than their white counterparts and for many, the inflamed circumstances also muddled the paths to and through higher education.
 
Now, as Americans are being vaccinated and the economy putters back to life, programs geared toward supporting these students could help make higher ed more accessible long after the pandemic fades, according to a new study from the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College.  (The Hechinger Report is an independent news organization also housed at Teachers College.)
 
Post-secondary institutions can welcome adult students of color by aligning certificate programs with degree programs; combining supports for academic needs with those that have often been considered solely personal; and ensuring students' lived experiences are reflected in their academic programs.
 
Thomas Brock, director of the Community College Research Center, or CCRC, said that devoting resources or services toward a certain group — in this case Black, Hispanic and Indigenous students — better sets them up for academic and career success.
 
“If you're trying to level the playing field, if you're trying to get those students to at least achieve at similar rates as white and Asian students, it really will require more intentional focus, more targeted services and investments.”
 
Aligning short-term certificates with degree programs
 
Richard Kazis, a researcher at the CCRC, said interest in short-term credentials had been gaining momentum before the pandemic but has “gone through the roof” recently.
 
He said adult workers tend to have a tough time finding enough time or money or space in their lives to be able to commit to a two- or four-year degree program. So although there are, especially now, many adults who need to find new jobs as unemployment benefits dwindle or who want to advance their careers, “they don’t really have time,” he said.
 
Embedding short-term certificate or credential programs within longer degree tracks allows students who may already have jobs or other obligations to enter the workforce quickly with the option to return to school later to build off the credential in pursuit of a degree.
 
Kazis said this model could help colleges struggling due to pandemic enrollment declines and employers desperate to hire as the economy fully reopens.
 
The evidence for short-term credential programs is mixed — researchers worry there aren’t enough high-quality programs to say whether this model will boost Black and Hispanic wages, but they suspect aligning credentials with degrees and giving students a path forward in their education could help close gaps.
 
“There's some promising evidence, there's some evidence that the outcomes vary greatly depending on industry, on the local economy, on how well the college is aligned with the employers and in the field,” Kazis said.
 
For these stackable models to work, researchers say policymakers and colleges need more data: which students are choosing high-quality, high-return programs; how they fare; and whether they advance either in the workforce or in school.
 
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., is leading an effort in Congress to extend the federal Pell Grant program to students seeking short-term credentials. The JOBS Act would allow eligible students to use Pell grants for programs that require at least 150 clock hours over eight weeks. The bill, which has bipartisan support, is modeled after Virginia’s FastForward program — an effort to address the demand for “middle-skill” workers.
 
Randy Stamper, the assistant vice chancellor for grants and federal programs at Virginia’s Community Colleges, said the five-year-old program is focused on getting people jobs quickly. After they’ve achieved that stability, students are recruited back for a longer term credit credential or eventually a degree.
 
Student support services
 
The report also explores different ways to holistically support adult students of color who often face more adverse circumstances than other students. Hoori Kalamkarian, a senior research associate at the CCRC, said this often includes aid managing childcare needs, housing or transportation assistance and other financial support.
 
Advising, meanwhile, should address all the students' needs, not just focus on setting up a degree plan or connecting them with the financial aid office, Kalamkarian said. It requires coordination and thought and should span from the time a student enrolls until they achieve whatever credential or degree they set out for.
 
For example, Cuyahoga Community College in Ohio has partnered with three local groups to provide academic and workforce training resources in economically distressed neighborhoods. They serve as an entry point to the college, but individuals can be connected to resources there regardless of whether they are already enrolled in a degree or training program.
 
The report also emphasizes a need for colleges to make better connections between areas of study and their students’ lives — an idea Brock calls “cultural sustainability.”
 
“Are there ways to help students see examples of the actual application of the skills they're learning to needs that they see every day in their own neighborhoods?” Brock said. “We think if colleges move more in that direction, students will see a fit for themselves, they might be engaged and committed at a deeper level to the programs.”
 
Send story ideas and news tips to osanchez@hechingerreport.org. Tweet at @oliviarsanchez. Read high-quality news about innovation and inequality in education at The Hechinger Report.
 
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