The benefits of a college degree are inarguable — college graduates make more money, have better job prospects, commit less crime, lead healthier lives, and are more civically engaged. These private and public benefits underline the federal government’s push for increased degree completion. While reaching the Obama Administration’s goal of 60 percent degree completion in the near future is unlikely, any substantial progress must include outreach to the 37 million adults in America with some college and no degree.
For these adults, the consequences of leaving school early, saddled with debt and no credential, can be difficult to escape. Even when these adults return to school for a degree they are considered “at-risk”: largely unfamiliar with the college concept, often confused by academic jargon, unacquainted with financial aid options, and unaware of the availability of resources. Many students feel overwhelmed by “information overload.”
“Life circumstances—family or personal illness, changing employment status, deployment of military students— are more likely to cause adult students to withdraw from college than are academic challenges,” says Dr. Mary Beth Hanner, provost, Excelsior College.
Unfortunately, few traditional institutions are equipped to serve this growing at-risk demographic, which is why many administrators are turning to distance learning institutions like Excelsior College. The nonprofit distance learning institution, which has been serving vulnerable, adult student populations since its founding in 1971, focuses on providing the personalized social, academic, and financial support services vulnerable students need to succeed.
Student Success Center
The Excelsior College Student Success Center, which launched in December 2015, works with at-risk and newly enrolled learners to provide proactive, personalized, and holistic coaching on their non-academic challenges such as time management, motivation, and self-confidence. Specialists called “student success coaches” help get students engaged with credit-bearing activity early in the process, which data shows is predictive of future success. As of June 2016, Excelsior’s academic coaches had engaged in outreach to over 10,000 students with substantive meetings with approximately 4,000.
Student Success Coaches celebrating the graduating Class of 2016
Excelsior focuses on providing asynchronous support, including the Online Writing Lab (OWL), 24/7 tutoring, and a Student Success Guide, which helps at-risk learners develop study strategies, better understand their learning style, boost their motivation for learning, and improve time management.
“It’s about digging deep with the student,” says Hannah Lynch, a student success coach at Excelsior. “It’s about holding up that mirror and asking the questions: ‘Why is this degree important to you? What are you afraid of?’ They need to believe.”
Ensuring faculty and instructors are aware and trained on the unique needs of a college’s student population is a critical component of any institution’s outreach to at-risk students.
“All nontraditional students are vulnerable populations, so (at Excelsior) selection of faculty with experience with nontraditional students is the first and foremost important thing to do,” says Wendy Trevor, PhD, executive director for the Center for Excellence in Teaching, Learning, and Assessment (CETLA). “We support faculty to develop their teaching skills to help us to provide an exceptional learner experience.”
Current Excelsior faculty have access to a wealth of development resources. Incoming faculty are required to complete a self-paced orientation course, which explains Excelsior’s student population, prior to being offered a teaching assignment. These requirements, Trevor says, ensure faculty can serve adult learners.
College can be a unique cultural experience, and trying to navigate unwritten rules, assumptions, and expectations can easily derail educational goals. For many growing up in a middle-class household, the importance of a college education is ingrained in them by their parents from an early age. They listen attentively to stories about college life and when the time comes, have a bevy of resources and support to traverse the complexities of the admission and financial aid process. Before they set foot on campus, second-generation students understand the ins and outs of different groups and associations, how to manage their time, and what programs lead to well-paying careers.
First-generation college students, who now account for 30 percent (and growing) of all currently enrolled students across higher education, lack this support structure. Their plight is drawing the attention of policy makers and reformers across the spectrum.
Keylla Capote, first generation student and Class of 2016 graduate
“There were certain things that even though I have ‘mastered’ the English language in an academic setting are very different,” says Keylla Capote, a recent Excelsior College graduate and first-generation student who came to the United States as a teenager from Venezuela. “My instructors knew this was a second language (for me) and that as I am technically a foreign student, so they were very kind.”
Many first-generation students lack professional networks, aren’t sure what to wear to a job interview or what to ask at a career fair. Others may be in the workforce, but without a credential, they have never had the opportunity to interview for a managerial or leadership position. Beyond self-assessments, career counseling, and asynchronous career planning tools, Excelsior College’s Career Center offers resume critiques and one-on-one video practice interviews to help students prepare.
Learn more about how Excelsior College serves the underserved: