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Employed Community College Students Studied


Employed Community College Students Need More Support

UC Riverside study calls for greater adaptability and resources for nontraditional, working students.

(October 12, 2010)

RIVERSIDE, Calif. – Most students enrolled in U.S. community colleges must work, making completion of degree and certificate programs difficult. At the same time, America’s community colleges are the least financially equipped to help these students, who typically are nontraditional learners challenged with balancing their roles as bread-winner, caregiver and student. Public policy must focus on providing the social and instructional support to enable these students to be successful, according to a study published Oct. 12 by researchers at the University of California, Riverside.

The study – “Succeeding in Community College: Advancing the Educational Progress of Working Students,” which appears in the UCR quarterly journal Policy Matters – suggests that the nation’s community colleges adapt programs and services to meet the needs of this diverse student population, and that social policy such as welfare-to-work and financial aid be modified to better support students who are compelled to work.

“It is not reasonable to expect poor students to work, attend college, cope with family responsibilities, persist in college, and attain economically gainful employment without any institutional or social policy support,” wrote study authors John Levin, professor of higher education and dean of the UC Riverside Graduate School of Education; Virginia Montero Hernandez, who earned her Ph.D. in education at UCR and remains as a postdoctoral fellow; and Christine Cerven, who earned a Ph.D. in sociology at UCR and is a postdoctoral fellow at UC San Diego.

Publication of the study coincides with the first White House Summit on Community Colleges held Oct. 5. President Obama told approximately 150 education leaders and policy-makers that an additional 5 million community college students must complete degree or certificate programs by 2020 if the United States is to remain competitive in the global marketplace. “In the coming years, jobs requiring at least an associate’s degree are going to grow twice as fast as jobs that don’t require college,” he said. “We will not fill those jobs – or keep those jobs on our shores – without community colleges.”

More than 6 million students are enrolled in credit-bearing courses today, with an additional 3 million to 5 million students enrolled in non-credit courses such as English as a second language, adult education and skills upgrading and community education programs.

The UCR researchers noted previous research that found a large proportion of community college students are nontraditional learners characterized by disadvantaged social class and ethnic backgrounds, academic deficiencies and multiple roles, such as caregiver, employee and student. A higher percentage of those students work while enrolled in courses compared to students in public four-year universities.

The researchers interviewed and observed students, as well as faculty and administrative staff, at Bakersfield College in central California and Borough of Manhattan Community College in New York City. They found that the ability of working students to overcome conflicting work and college demands was directly associated with support services provided to them, such as counseling, peer mentoring, flexible scheduling and tutoring.

Full-time work is detrimental for nontraditional working students because this population faces conflicting roles in the midst of already strenuous conditions, the researchers found.

“Nontraditional students who face a role conflict (i.e., student versus worker) in the midst of distressed pasts and precarious futures are not only trying to achieve a sense of stability in their lives but also endeavoring to manage the transition into an academic culture,” they wrote. “Most working students in community colleges in their late 20s and older are unfamiliar with the academic environment and accompanying expectations, including needed academic skills. For nontraditional students, attending a community college is a constant experience of adaptation in which they have to learn how to maximize their time, efforts, and learning experiences in order to become integrated into the academic and social dynamic that characterize college life. Thus nontraditional students who work while studying struggle to assimilate an academic culture. The amount of time that full-time work requires of nontraditional students may reduce opportunities for students to acknowledge and access the personal and institutional resources required to persist in college.”

Overall, community colleges serve the most disadvantaged and academically underprepared student population of postsecondary education. In order for these students to fulfill their financial obligations and attend college they must work, according to the study.

“Yet, of all public educational institutions, community colleges are the least funded and are the least financially equipped to help these students. Financial constraints and an overwhelming climate of accountability hinder the ability of community colleges to develop responsive and supportive educational programs,” the researchers said.

It is essential that support structures are based on institutional policies that are sensitive to the diversity and demands of nontraditional learners, according to the study. For example, services such as counseling, day care, health care, and access to libraries would be more effective if they were adapted to the specific needs of the diverse population they serve. Services that are available during the evening or weekend classes would accommodate students who work in the day or during the week and attend classes only at night or on weekends. “College programs that endeavor to support students would be wise to adapt to the populations that they serve,” the researchers concluded.

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