A comprehensive game plan to better serve adult learners of color


Community colleges can play a key role in helping adult learners of color prepare for jobs — especially as the economy revs up — but it will require a keen eye in designing, implementing and marketing programs and services that appeal to them, says a report by the Community College Research Center (CCRC).

The report, commissioned by Lumina Foundation, focuses on three areas where community colleges can improve their structures and programs:

  • Aligning short-term credentials with degree programs
  • Improving the design and delivery of advising and other support services
  • Creating culturally sustaining instruction and supports

The report recommends how to improve in those areas and highlights promising practices. For example, it says state- and institution-level strategies to align high-quality, short-term credentials with college degrees must address multiple areas of policy and practice, including:

  • Approval processes for new credentials linked to employer demand
  • Curricular alignment and sequencing of noncredit and credit degree programs
  • Transfer agreements for credits and credentials earned
  • Data systems to track labor market outcomes
  • Financial support for institutions and low-income adults
  • Adult-targeted advising and career planning

CCRC examined Virginia’s FastForward initiative, through which 24,500 individuals to date have earned a credential. Offered at all 23 Virginia community colleges, the short-term training program (typically 6-12 weeks) prepares participants — two-thirds of whom have no prior college experience — for entry into high-demand occupations. Most completers have seen their wages increase 25% to 50%.

The report also looks in-depth at how the Wisconsin Technical College System is embedding credentials into associate degree programs, and how community colleges in Texas are integrating short-term credentials as part of their guided pathway reforms.

A better student support strategy

When it comes to advising and other student support services, CCRC researchers noted that effective advising and support services are especially important for the retention and completion of minority adult students. However, advising and support services at community colleges are often under-resourced, with advising caseloads ranging as high as 1,200 students, the report said.

To tackle the issue, some community colleges have devised “bundling and sequencing.” Bundling is the “integrated delivery of academic and nonacademic supports,” the report said. In a bundled design, guidance on what courses to take includes resources to address potential barriers to success, such as transportation vouchers so students can get to class.

Sequencing is the “aligning of supports with students’ needs through each stage of their college journey,” the report said. In this model, an advisor or counselor helps students explore careers in the connection and entry stages, and, in later stages, build on this exploration by helping students identify and prepare for a specific postsecondary pathway.

Bundling and sequencing student support services create a more cohesive and responsive experience for adult students at each stage of their academic journey, the report said. For example, when adults first enroll, they will likely need help transferring prior credits, applying for financial aid, exploring careers and selecting a program. Later on, students may need assistance finding tutors and other academic supports on campus, connecting with other students and employers in their chosen fields, and exploring other programs to advance their careers.

Studies on two programs that use this approach — the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) at the City University of New York and the Stay the Course program in Texas — show positive effects on degree completion, the study said. It also provides brief examples of how other community colleges have used this approach.

Weaving in cultural components

To deliver culturally sustaining supports and instruction, institutions will need to think differently and more creatively about the programs, courses and services they offer, and how to make the college experience more enriching and affirming for racially minoritized adults, the report said.

“Creating and maintaining a culturally sustaining environment requires ongoing communication with students and community members about their interests and needs. Affinity groups and dedicated spaces on campus for students from different cultural groups can help to open up conversations and demonstrate a college’s commitment to diversity and inclusion,” it said.

The center highlighted efforts at Ohio’s Cuyahoga Community College as a case study. The college established multicultural centers to facilitate cross-cultural engagement and community service. There is a center on each of the college’s four main campuses where students can socialize, receive support, collaborate and attend events, the report said.

The multicultural centers were also designed as spaces where students can have difficult conversations about what is happening in their communities and what they can do about it, the report said. A Black American Council and a Hispanic Council are housed within the multicultural centers.

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