Community college education has traditionally been perceived as an affordable stepping-stone to a four-year degree, or a vocational pathway to the labor market. As a result, community colleges have focused on enrolling first-generation students and low-income adults who enroll in a particular course or program, take lessons and eventually complete, never to return back.
Unfortunately, this tendency limits community colleges’ ability to effectively deliver learning over the course of a lifetime, and to evolve with their learners. It also places the community college firmly within the context of a three-stage life, where individuals progress through the public education system, enroll in a postsecondary program, and then go off to work.
But a life is no longer three-stages. To serve individuals across the 100-Year Life, colleges must stop thinking about their engagement with students as finite and fixed.
“The community college is the most important sector of higher education in the 21st century,” said Sandra Kurtinitis, President of the Community College of Baltimore County, in an interview with The EvoLLLution. “Everything we do at a community college, whether it’s preparation for transfer or entering the workplace, offers an opportunity to help people get ready for a life and a career.”
An increasing number of adult learners are returning back to school. Driven by their need to earn a better pay, elevate their careers, or even pursue a hobby, adult learners present community colleges with a unique opportunity to be served for life. Additionally, the younger generation enters the community college world with the expectation of acquiring basic employment skills. If community colleges are able to serve them young—with camps and dual enrollment offerings—they stand a good chance of serving their educational needs as they progress through the different stages of their life and careers.
What this presents is something truly exciting for two-year colleges. A student lifecycle that begins when a learner is in the K-12 system, and that extends even beyond retirement.
A Change in Mindset
This premise of lifelong learning requires a fundamental shift in the way higher education is designed.
Community colleges must stop thinking of higher education as the completion of a course, program or an associate degree. Instead, they need to start thinking about each student engagement as a milestone in the overall student relationship. If education becomes a commodity, then the real differentiator will be how a college fosters its relationship with the community it serves. Community colleges should embrace this mindset and aim for establishing lasting ties with their students.
According to Kurtinitis, this mindset of framing the college experience as one that’s lifelong—rather than immediate—can lead to robust partnerships with both four-year institutions and employers, and significantly benefits students over the long run.
“When educators start thinking in this continuous, connected and contiguous ways, that’s the kind of work they can do,” she said.
Essentially, the onus lies on community colleges to not only focus on helping students complete their associate degrees or short courses, but extend learning over the course of a lifetime.
Fostering Learning Beyond the First Engagement
Here are four key tactics that your community college can adopt to create an environment that pushes and promotes lifelong learning.1. Provide students with information that serves their learning needs
The internet has made information available to everyone on-demand. Students expect to be able to access information quickly and efficiently and want options to do something with it—whether it’s a course registration or even an RSVP to an information or a counselling session that educates them about the academic path they can take.
The availability of information—about programs, career paths, outcomes—is one of the most important aspects that supports lifelong learning. You need to make this available or even push it to your students to bring them success. If your students don’t get the information—either because you don’t provide it or have not made it easily accessible—they will simply disengage or even not return to your institution, if ever a future need arises. If you expect students to move from one department or website to another to get this information, you are taking their valuable time away which could have been better utilized on the learning itself.2. Use personalized communication to target students better
Your college communication must be focused on your students’ needs. It is essential to tailor your messages and communication around the stages of their progress and achievement. From educating students about programming options and pathways to success, to the first few exploratory emails and admissions reminders, each and every student interaction must be customized to the goals students want to accomplish or the life and career challenges they want to address.
It is also important to understand where each student fits in the student lifecycle. Across the different stages in their academic career, students have contextual needs and priorities and it’s important that you are aware of those. If you have this information, you can guide your students proactively rather than reactively and move forward in a way that best supports their continued success.3. Leverage data to detect student learning patterns and make recommendations
You can’t afford to ignore the power of data. If you want to support your students through their learning journey, you need data about their needs, goals and objectives. By collecting and analyzing this data across multiple sources such as student information systems and learning management systems, you can not only understand but also enhance student learning.
Armed with actionable intelligence about student preferences, their academic performance and learning patterns, you can advise and guide your students regarding the programming options that are available to them through the different stages of their careers.
4. Make enrollment and re-enrollment as seamless as possible
Students, especially adult learners, have competing priorities and are pressed for time. Whatever time they have, they prefer spending it on actual learning rather than getting embroiled in administrative red-tape. So you must ensure that your enrollment process is simple enough so that students can self-register in a few clicks.
Once you have the students in your system, you shouldn’t be asking them to provide the same information over and over again. Students may choose to pursue different programs at different stages, and they should not be required to create a new account every time they want to re-enroll with your college. Their focus should only be on the education and what is needed for them to succeed.
It’s high time that community colleges embrace the concept of lifelong learning and take steps to facilitate it for their students. There is technology that makes it possible and a lot easier. The only thing that is needed on your part is institutional commitment.
Read our whitepaper and learn how you can manage the different stages of a student lifecycle to facilitate lifelong learning.