Community colleges have been an important part of American culture since the first one was founded in 1901. They’ve helped millions of Americans gain additional education, move on to four-year colleges and universities and get the job training they’ve needed. Their accessibility has always been an important feature.
At first, community college students were often children of farmers or shopkeepers and others that wanted an education but were unable to access the state university system. So right from the beginning, the students at community college have never fit the standard perceptions of what a college student is. And today’s students are even more diverse. Although they all desire academic and life success, community college students are far from “typical”.
First generation college students
29% of students are first generation college students. They’re enthusiastic and capable, but many struggle with balancing family expectations and their own ideas for their futures. They may not have a network of people that understand their situation, needs, or have first-hand knowledge of the college experience. Because of that, some students may feel lonely, isolated or get discouraged.
Being a parent is a lot of responsibility and work. Many parents decide they need additional education or job training to better provide for their families financially. Sometimes parents need a career change so they can be available for their kids. The financial accessibility and flexible class schedules of community colleges sometimes mean they’re the only option. But making care arrangements, transportation, and finding time to study can make stress levels soar. For single parents the challenges are even greater.
Older students at or near retirement that have a love of learning find their way to community colleges too. They may want to keep pursuing their interests or finish the degree they started years ago. They may face challenges with different learning styles, learning course material quickly, and connecting with their fellow students.
Many disabled students can achieve their dream of going to college or training for a job that can give them a lifelong connection to their community. These students may need remedial course work before going on to a degree program or job training. They may need classroom accommodations or extra technology to help them successfully reach their educational goals and access college resources. Many take longer to reach their goals, so they can be at risk for getting discouraged and dropping out.
Low income students
The cost of community college has always been a major factor in its accessibility. Low income students have been able to take advantage of opportunities to further their educational interests and increase their earning power. Many of these students have to have a job outside of school and may have problems juggling work and study time. They may be more likely to leave school because of lack of funds, take longer to earn a degree, and if others in their family and social circles haven’t been to college, they may not have the social support they need.
Students in their 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s with established careers
A growing number of students who have attended college previously are now returning for additional training or certification. Some need to keep their job skills up to date, or are changing careers. At this point in their lives they have to worry about keeping stable employment and family responsibilities which can include caring for children or aging relatives. Fitting studying and classes into their already busy schedules can be a challenge, and they may be in danger of abandoning their educational plans because of overwhelm, stress or money. The college experience is different than it was their first time around and they may also struggle with working with instructors and peers.
Students enrolled in online programs
Some programs can exclusively or almost exclusively be completed online. Unusual schedules, the desire to complete work at their own pace, or having more flexibility and control over their educational experiences are just a few reasons students go this route. Since it didn’t exist as an option a generation ago, online learning presents its own unique challenges that can be difficult to deal with using traditional solutions. Students may have trouble adapting to the change in instructional style. They may experience difficulties that involve equipment or lack of technology skills. They may have more problems with time management and motivation than other students. They may also miss some of the social support provided by a more traditional learning environment.
With over 40% of undergraduate students attending community colleges, it’s easy to see how important these institutions are for meeting the educational needs of today’s communities. With many different types of students, community colleges are facing their own unique challenges when it comes to effectively serving student’s educational needs.