Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

Welcome to The Intersection! I’m Naomi Harris, and this is my Open Campus newsletter that examines race and equity in higher education. If you’re new, make sure to sign up for future editions!


Figuring out what adult learners of color need

How can community colleges better serve adult learners of color? For the past year, community colleges in six states have been working to find ways to make it easier for adult learners to get the education they need with Racial Equity for Adult Credentials in Higher Ed (REACH).

REACH is a collaborative effort with the Lumina Foundation and education focused groups like the Education Strategy Group and the Office of Community College Research and Leadership at the University of Illinois to provide participants with technical assistance and funding. (Lumina supports Open Campus; see our editorial independence policy here.)

In California, Colorado, New York, North Carolina, Texas, and Virginia, community colleges restructured non-degree credentials to make them more accessible and affordable for adult learners. The initiative offers ways for colleges to build stronger support systems and ways to connect adult learners of color to job opportunities.

The colleges sought to attack gaps in success rates among adult students. In 2021, 56 percent of white adults over the age of 25 earned an associate’s or higher degree, compared with 34 percent of Black adults and Hispanic adults and 21 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native adults, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

That gap needs to be addressed, says Matt Gandal, president and CEO of the Education Strategy Group, an educational consultant organization.

“A post secondary credential is necessary, not a ‘nice to have’ but a necessary thing to have if you want to be successful in the economy,” says Gandal.

Adults constantly have to balance responsibilities such as taking care of family, going to work and finding childcare. So when it comes to pursuing education, it is understandable that many adult learners seek short-term credential programs that get them quickly back into the workforce with the promise of a good-paying job, Gandal said.

The collaborative provides nearly 200 community colleges with resources that identify opportunities to meet local workforce needs and create programs that offer credentials that prepare adults for those jobs.

The community colleges are tasked with analyzing which programs are “stackable,” or part of a sequence of qualifications that can be added up over time to help students build better careers. They also are adding supports like childcare, tutoring, and transportation.

The colleges also are charged with making plans to build a more equitable environment for adult learners of color.

“Everything from pedagogy, financial aid, student services — taking a hard look through the eyes of learners of color and their unique backgrounds, identities and cultures and working with the colleges to figure out how those things need to be adjusted,” Gandal says.

The initiative’s main goal is to see a 2 percent increase in credentials earned by Black, Hispanic and Native American adults from 25–64, who are enrolled at the participating community colleges, within two years.

When the program first began, states were tasked with a self-assessment, says Christine Barrow, the director at Education Strategy Group. Colleges were asked to find the biggest gaps and challenges for the adult learners of color by looking at data points — examining students enrolling in the programs as well as the students not completing them.

How colleges are serving adult learners

In California, 23 community colleges are working with the REACH initiative to restructure non-credit programs and get access to more resources, says Cassie Donnelly, the senior program specialist at the Foundation for California Community Colleges that oversees the program.

One of those colleges is Río Hondo College, a community college that serves about 80 percent Hispanic students.

The college has seen a shift in student demographics as it has started to serve more adults, said Gita Runkle, the dean of business.

“Even if someone does have a job already, how do we really reach them and say: Hey, you’ve got a job, you’re making your bills, meeting your needs — but how do we take you from good to great?”

The initiative required different parts of a participating community college to come together to figure out how the non-credit programs could better serve students from areas that used to be separate like student services, career and technical education programs, and liberal-arts programs.

For example, Río Hondo is restructuring a non-credit program for jobs like property appraiser assistance.

The LA County Office of the Assessor asked Río Hondo to help train people with a program that was made up of four classes, all tuition free and non-credit. From there, students interested in applying to become an appraiser assistant could then go through the two-year degree program in business administration.

Through this path, students could start out as an appraiser assistant and then continue on to become an appraiser or property assessment specialist as they obtain their bachelor’s degrees and apply for higher-paid positions.

“It works for the students — it gives them the stepping stone. They can put this on their resume that they get a certificate of achievement. It’s also good for the college,” says Runkle.

The non-credit program began last spring with over 50 students with four people hired into the LA office and 47 in the pipeline to be hired, says Runkle.

“They can go back and get a non-credit certificate, with free tuition, and now they’re even more eligible to apply for a job. It works both ways. That’s the beauty.” she said.

Tune in live!

A couple weeks ago, I co-published a story that examined how unpaid internships can create financial and educational barriers for students of color and students from low-income families.

This Thursday at 12 p.m. PT, I am moderating a panel on Instagram with students and experts at Pay Our Interns to talk more about the burdens caused by unpaid internships. Haven’t read it? Check out the full story at Open Campus (also co-published by the Associated Press).

Recommended Reading

Rafael Lopez-Librado in the living room of his home in Madera, Calif. Photo: Nick Fouriezos

Rafael Lopez-Librado thought he was doing everything he needed to do to attend college. Then one day, he learned the application deadline had passed. Nick Fouriezos’ story on students like Rafael explores the troubles of rural advising and college accessibility.

How are colleges trying to adapt to changes in the higher ed landscape? What matters to prospective students? Amy Morona at Crain’s Cleveland Business, an Open Campus partner, reports on what colleges are doing to try to bring in students and open up new opportunities.

In Pittsburgh, students are advocating for change when it comes to sexual violence and harrassment. Emma Folts and Mila Sanina at PublicSource, an Open Campus partner, are producing a series that looks at what students and colleges are doing to support survivors and educate campuses.

Thanks for reading!

I’d like to hear from you. Share your stories, tips, and perspectives by sending me an email. Reach out to me at naomi@opencampusmedia.org.

Open Campus national reporter covering the intersection of race and higher education.