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Meet the new student on campus: Why colleges are focusing on ‘adult learners’

A note from Nation

Welcome to the latest edition of Awake58. We hope you will stay a while. If you received this email without a subscription, please click here to subscribe to this newsletter.

This week we are focused on the work underway across the state to recruit and retain adult learners… myFutureNC released an in-depth report on our progress towards the state’s attainment goal — and the ways the pandemic has impacted the work… Durham Tech’s JB Buxton was named to the Aspen Institute New President Fellowship… Richmond Community College was featured in the local news for strategic shifts… Wilkes Community College has launched a new initiative focused on high-demand tech jobs and the remote work revolution…

Our series on adult learners will roll out over the course of this week. Mike Krause, the former head of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission and an expert on adult learners, spoke with us for a podcast that will be released later in the week. He gave some context to the work:

If colleges don’t adapt, Krause said, employers will start their own colleges, “and then we have an existential threat to a lot of institutions’ business and their ability to remain open.”

The pandemic only increased the urgency for community colleges to re-engage adult learners. Many adults who lost or decided to change jobs as a result of the pandemic will need to be retrained, and community colleges can fill that need.

The first part of the series, written by my colleagues Emily Thomas and Molly Osborne, profiles several adult learners and looks at why colleges are focusing on them. I encourage you to read the piece for many reasons. I particularly found the profiles of currently enrolled adult students to be compelling.

Our just-published piece on the strategic shifts underway for community colleges serving adult students is also well worth your time. Colleges across the state are revamping their marketing efforts (both targeting and messaging), implementing new customer relationship management systems, and opening an Adult Center at one college.

As part of the series, Blue Ridge Community College president Laura Leatherwood wrote a perspective on reaching adult learners as the leader of a community college that is part of the NC Reconnect pilot around adult learners. She shared four questions they centered the work around as the effort got underway and four key strategies they have implemented.

Finally, myFutureNC released their in-depth report on progress towards our state’s attainment goal. Our own Anna Pogarcic wrote an in-depth feature spotlighting key findings and recommendations myFutureNC outlined as critical for our attainment efforts as we attempt to emerge from the pandemic.

As always, thank you for reading.

I’ll see you out on the road,

Nation Hahn

Head of Growth — EdNC.org


EdNC reads

This week we are focused on adult learners.

North Carolina community colleges have historically served a wide range of ages. In fact, in 2020-21, students ages 25-64 made up 52% of community colleges’ total enrollment systemwide. Students over the age of 25 are often referred to as adult learners. When an adult learner begins or returns to college, they arrive with needs that are different from students who are recent high school graduates.

Despite community colleges having educated adult learners for years, their operating models do not always reflect the student population they serve and are trying to reach.

But that is starting to change.

In June 2021, the John M Belk Endowment, the Belk Center, and myFutureNC announced a pilot project, called NC Reconnect, and outreach campaign to engage and enroll adult learners.

NC Reconnect is a collaboration with five North Carolina community colleges: Blue Ridge Community College, Durham Technical Community College, Fayetteville Technical Community College, Pitt Community College, and Vance-Granville Community College. The pilot project included an outreach campaign called Better Skills. Better Jobs. that engaged students who previously attended one of the five institutions. The campaign also targeted a broader audience of adult learners, not just those who had previously attended.

In addition to outreach, the pilot project has provided an opportunity for the five community colleges to think more broadly about how they reach, retain, and serve adult learners. To better understand how these five community colleges used this initiative to make changes across their campuses, EdNC, along with the Belk Center for Community College Leadership and Research, interviewed presidents, staff, and students at each of the pilot schools.

The first article in our series debuted yesterday. My colleague Emily, who traveled to a number of colleges to deepen our understanding of strategies being implemented around adult learners, interviewed several adult students during these visits. She profiles them in the second half of the article. You will meet Kasi Huaman:

“To cancel the poor curse.”

That’s how Kasi Huaman responded when asked about her decision to attend Fayetteville Technical Community College.

Huaman is 26 and has a three-year-old son.

“I grew up poor, so poor,” Huaman said. “I want to change that. I want to give my son what I didn’t have.”

Taking classes is a stepping stone to building generational wealth for Huaman and her family, she said.

If you want to learn more about adult students, the work that is currently underway on campuses across the state, and to meet some of the adult students Emily profiled, read our series this week.

Click here for the full story

What progress is North Carolina making on its attainment goal?

It is an understatement to say that COVID-19 has impacted every aspect of our education system. MyFutureNC, the statewide nonprofit focused on educational attainment in our state, recently released a report showcasing the early impacts of the pandemic on the progress towards our attainment goal. Anna Pogarcic has the story:

In 2019, the myFutureNC Commission announced an attainment goal of having 2 million North Carolinians aged 25-44 with a high-quality credential or degree by 2030.

The most recent data available, according to the report released earlier this month, show that 1.4 million North Carolinians meet this criteria — about 44,000 behind where the state needs to be to reach the 2 million by 2030 goal.

When the group made the goal, the state was already projected to be 400,000 short by 2030. The pandemic posed additional challenges, but myFutureNC President & CEO Cecilia Holden and Board Chair Dale Jenkins wrote that the group needs to focus on hope.

“Periods of disruption are ideal opportunities for disruptors,” they wrote. “We now have a chance to do something transformative to shape the future of our state and citizens forever.”

The pandemic delayed or caused some of the data in the report to be incomplete, such as information about test scores from the last two years. Despite this, the data show that college applications fell by up to 30% between 2019 and 2020, while FAFSA completions fell 4% between 2020 and 2021.

myFutureNC did strike a positive tone when they made note of the pandemic showcasing the importance of attainment as both a “short-term recovery strategy” and a “long-term resiliency plan” for North Carolina.

The report goes on to offer recommendations around data systems and broadband, while also highlighting where the state has made progress on academic readiness, college and career access, postsecondary completion, labor market alignment, and more.

Click here for the story

How NC’s community colleges are adapting to better serve adult learners

Our recent travels to explore the work around adult learners revealed that a common challenge is the structure of higher education systems writ large. Financial aid, admissions, and support processes both federally and at the state level are often set up to support the concept of a “traditional” student — an 18-year-old leaving home for the first time in pursuit of a degree.

The series this week takes a look at how community colleges across the state are reimagining their offerings to support adults. Emily and Molly visited several colleges, including Pitt Community College:

“Adult learners have different needs than … our traditional students coming straight out of high school,” said Lawrence Rouse, president of Pitt Community College. “They need what I call wrap-around services.”

Those services can include everything from help with transportation to childcare, food, and clothing. …

But operating hours aren’t the only problem. For many students, navigating the college during the admissions process is a pain point. Whether it be physically navigating the campus or having to connect with multiple offices, students can often feel overwhelmed.

To alleviate some of this, Pitt Community College has plans to launch an Adult Center. It will be a centralized location where adult learners can find support and resources in one place. The center will also house staff who have been trained to counsel adult learners, said Rouse.

For lessons from the five pilot colleges, check out the piece by clicking here.

Perspective | Reflections on engaging adult learners from a community college president

As president of Blue Ridge Community College, Laura Leatherwood has guided her team through their early work around reaching adult students. We asked her to share a few takeaways. She noted that they began the work by asking themselves the following questions:

  1. Institutional readiness — Did we have the capacity and talent?

  2. Community readiness — Did we have partnerships within the community that would support this work?

  3. Leadership readiness — Did I, as president, have the support of my leadership team? Were they all in?

  4. Strategic readiness — Did this work align with our strategic goals?

Leatherwood then goes on to share the four strategies they have implemented thus far — and she shared some early data indicating some real momentum behind the work. Read her piece for details!


Around NC

Per a press release from the system office: “The N.C. Community College System (NCCCS) was selected by Lumina Foundation to join the Racial Equity for Adult Credentials in Higher Education (REACH) Collaborative, a national initiative focused on helping thousands more Black, Hispanic, Latino, and Native American adults earn credentials. A total of 20 community colleges in North Carolina will participate in the collaborative, creating pathways from quality credentials to associates programs that embed culturally sustaining practices and sequenced student supports. This initiative is also supported by an investment from the John M. Belk Endowment.”

Beaufort County Community College opened a new building focused on the college’s EMS and fire programs recently. This building is the final part of their Emergency Training and Workforce Complex, according to local press.

Cleveland Community College announced a new agreement with UNC-Wilmington called Pathways to Excellence. The agreement will “guarantee transfer admission to students who receive an Associate in Arts or Associate in Science with at least a 2.5 cumulative grade point average.”

Durham Tech president J.B. Buxton was named as one of 25 presidents from across the country to serve as part of the Aspen Institute’s New Presidents Fellowship.

Richmond Community College president Dale McInnis met with his commissioners recently to discuss some upcoming changes at RCC that are worth noting. From the Richmond Observer:

College President Dr. Dale McInnis told the Richmond County Board of Commissioners Tuesday that classes will soon start for the Pharmacy Technician program, which has been in the works for several years in cooperation with local and chain pharmacies.

The program will be housed in the Robinette Building on the downtown Rockingham campus.

“Rather than taking two years to complete, they’ll be going around the clock for one semester,” McInnis said.

The college is also in the planning stages of a new auto mechanics program that will be condensed into one semester.

In the class, McInnis said students will “go all day, work together as a team … and not only develop the skills and knowledge the professor requires, but also gain the soft skills — teamwork and following directions — that all companies are looking for right now.”

According to a release from Wilkes Community College, the college is partnering with nonprofit Per Scholas “In an effort to address the state-wide skills gap in entry-level technology career paths and in recognition of the increasing appetite for companies to allow technology talent to work remotely.”

The release also quoted WCC president Jeff Cox saying, “The tech industry in North Carolina is booming, the pay is great, career growth potential is exceptional, and we want our region to benefit. I am thrilled to be entering this partnership with Per Scholas to offer an expanded set of options for great technology careers to our students. Paired with our own fantastic IT instructors, this partnership will provide great career opportunities for our students to graduate from WCC and access high-paying tech jobs that, increasingly, can be done remotely from our region. Remote work allows folks to earn a good living and live a good life surrounded by the natural beauty and small-town feel of Northwest NC.”


Other higher education reads

Study Reveals Transportation Assistance Helps Community College Students Succeed

The conversation around student services and wrap-around supports continues to ramp up as the pandemic showcases additional inequities. DiverseEducation.com spotlights an interesting study on an institution in California that zeroed in on transportation assistance:

The study was conducted at Rio Hondo College, a community college and Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI), in Whitter, California. Rio Hondo partnered with the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Agency to create a deeply discounted Universal College Student Transit Pass, or U-Pass, funded almost entirely by a $7 fee all students pay at the start of their semester. Students can apply for a free U-Pass to use whenever it’s needed: to get to work, take their kids to school, or shop for groceries at the supermarket. …

According to the study, students with a U-Pass were five percentage points more likely to enroll at the same institution the following semester and enroll the following year. Students with a U-Pass earned more credits on average, were 17% more likely to earn a credential, and 27% more likely to earn an associate degree.

Community Colleges Are an Agile New Player in Job Training

Tara Jacoby, president of Opportunity America, has an essay in the Wall Street Journal looking at the role community colleges are playing in job training. One of Jacoby’s main points will sound familiar to many of you:

People displaced by robotics and artificial intelligence need short, targeted bursts of training that enable them to return to the workforce as quickly as possible. And as the pace of change quickens, workers at all education levels may need to return to school later in life, learning new skills to keep up with the evolving economy. In response to these trends, many of the nation’s community and technical colleges are pivoting to put job-focused education more at the center of their mission and culture.

Nation Hahn

Nation Hahn is the director of growth for EducationNC.