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is part of the Jossey-Bass higher education newsletter series. It highlights best practices in helping students fulfill their potential, plus keeps readers informed of critical legal issues. It is available in print, online and as a PDF delivery. Read More
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Retention
11/13/2014 12:00 AM

Adult learners at open-enrollment institutions often arrive lacking basic college readiness. They may have been out of school for many years, so their academic skills may be rusty, or they may simply have failed to acquire a sufficient degree of knowledge in core subjects during previous schooling. As a result, they are not ready to enroll in college-level courses.

This is the case for the majority of students who attend Cerritos College in California. The institution assesses about 7,000 incoming students each year in the areas of math, reading and English, and the majority fall below college levels. However, students tend to be most deficient in the area of math. In fact, many students lacked even basic arithmetic skills, placing three to four levels below basic college-level math.

Adult learners at open-enrollment institutions often arrive lacking basic college readiness. They may have been out of school for many years, so their academic skills may be rusty, or they may simply have failed to acquire a sufficient degree of knowledge in core subjects during previous schooling. As a result, they are not ready to enroll in college-level courses.

This is the case for the majority of students who attend Cerritos College in California. The institution assesses about 7,000 incoming students each year in the areas of math, reading and English, and the majority fall below college levels. However, students tend to be most deficient in the area of math. In fact, many students lacked even basic arithmetic skills, placing three to four levels below basic college-level math.

As a result, many students had to take numerous remedial math courses before they could enroll in college-level math classes. And because of the high number of students needing math remediation, there were often insufficient sections of those courses to meet the demand. After struggling to get into those courses and spending semesters doing work that didn’t count toward their programs of study, many got discouraged and dropped out.

Graciela Vasquez, the director of adult education and diversity programs; and Norberto Nuñez and Scott Mackay, two instructors in the division, spoke at this year’s American Association of Community Colleges conference, explaining how they tackled the problem. If you offer developmental courses, their strategy could help you boost success rates in those classes, helping students progress into for-credit classes faster.

Traditionally, the college offered students needing math remediation semester-long lecture courses through the math department based on how they did in a placement exam.

Although they were developmental courses, they still counted toward students’ financial aid caps, slowing their progress on college-level courses in other subject areas. Students were also required to enroll in a concurrent study skills course. A close tie between those courses and the Success Center and participation in learning communities helped students along, but not at the rate or with the level of success administrators wanted.

“Many students were still not reaching the college level,” Vasquez said.

Today, remedial math courses look a lot different. For one, they were moved out of the math department and into the noncredit side of the house. That made sense because the classes now don’t count toward students’ financial aid caps. Plus, students pay only a lab fee of $40 per course. And no record of the courses goes on their official transcripts.

To address the cost of materials, an open-source textbook was created by a Cerritos instructor and is made available in electronic format.

The courses are also no longer just lecture-based. Rather, they are hybrid courses that still contain a traditional lecture component, but also include lab work. The study skills support is integrated, so there’s no need for the concurrent class that students previously had to take. And the labs are conducted with direct support from the Success Center, so students now become familiarized with the center and its services by mere virtue of being in a remedial course.

Classes run for six-, nine- and 12-week sessions, so students can progress through them faster and choose whatever option fits their needs best. Plus, that leaves plenty of time before the end of the semester for students to register for the next remedial course they need, avoiding a mad grab for available spots in the limited number of course sections.

The lab portion of the course is unique in that each student is assigned modules that are individually tailored to address their specific skill gaps identified in their placement test. The modules can be completed at students’ individual pace. That’s critical because for students placing in the lowest level of remedial math, there’s no bottom, so students come with a wide range of skills and gaps.

“Some of these are students who graduated high school but are, at best, only able to do middle school math,” Nuñez said.

Students work on the modules during lab times so they can get immediate help from instructors when they run into problems. But they can also use the Success Center to work on the material independently and access tutoring help as needed. The center is open for 12 hours a day, five days a week. Additionally, students may access the online content 24/7 from any computer, so they can work through modules and practice their math skills from home whenever they want.

The modules, which are part of Pearson’s MyFoundationsLab®, provide students with an easy way to contact instructors for help without exiting the program. It also provides positive reinforcement as students move through the material. Yellow stars signify completed sections, while pencil icons next to modules in a list signify that those modules still need to be completed.

An orientation is offered at the beginning of the courses to get students acquainted with the program, but Nuñez noted that it’s very easy to maneuver, and students usually figure it out very quickly.

Students are graded on a pass/no-pass system. Instead of a final exam at the end of the course, they retake the math placement test. That easily shows their increase in knowledge from their first attempts at the placement exam and determines what their following course should be.

The online lab offers students a skills check, so students can see exactly what areas they could use some additional practice in. That’s key to preparing them to retake the placement test. Post-tests also let students prepare to master the placement exam.

The new model was piloted in the fall of 2012. Surprisingly, many students began placing two to three levels higher.

“Not all students need the entire term to build up their skills to the next level, so instructors could assign modules covering material from the next class up,” Mackay explained.

In fact, among the 318 students enrolled in the lowest developmental courses in the fall of 2013, 100 percent demonstrated significant improvement; 73 percent moved up one or more levels; and of those that moved up one or more levels, nearly half moved up two levels after retaking the placement test.

What’s more, 90 percent of students found the online lab easy to use; 82 percent reported satisfaction with their level of progress; and 88 percent said they would recommend the course to others.

“Students become more self-confident and motivated,” Vasquez said. “As they see their improvement in the placement test, they begin saying, ‘I can do this.’”

Revamping remedial courses required collaboration across institution

Moving developmental math courses from the math department to the noncredit division seemed at first counterintuitive to some faculty and administrators at Cerritos College. But the move has drastically increased student success and motivation, by helping students avoid premature caps on their financial aid awards, allowing them various accelerated term options, and keeping developmental courses from showing up on transcripts.

If you’re looking for ways to more closely marry your institution’s noncredit unit to your credit-bearing, adult-oriented programs, this could be a model worth emulating.

“It’s a very collaboration-dependent program,” Vasquez said.

For one, the math department had to be persuaded to give up control of the courses to the noncredit division. Today, some of the instructors still come from the math department, while others come from the noncredit division, but the courses are offered through the noncredit unit.

A test run in the fall of 2012 helped allay fears of moving the program to the noncredit side of the house, because student success in the placement tests soared after participating in the redesigned courses. The key, according to the presenters, is showing how making developmental courses true noncredit offerings helps students in need of remediation move to credit-bearing courses faster and more successfully.

The collaborations don’t end there. For example, the Adult Education and Diversity Programs division is responsible for dealing with scheduling and registration, providing instructors, conducting student outreach, and maintaining the online lab.

Meanwhile, the college’s Success Center provides staff support for labs, including tutors; provides faculty training; and tracks students’ lab hours. And the assessment office conducts outreach and referrals and administers placement tests for students retaking the exams after finishing the remedial courses.

For more information, you may contact Graciela Vasquez at gvasquez@cerritos.edu, Norberto Nuñez at nnunez@cerritos.edu, and Scott Mackay at smackay@cerritos.edu.

Retention
9/18/2014 12:00 AM
Photo of a member of the military carrying textbooks.
Military and veteran students need supports tailored to their lives. Credit: Sean Locke Photography/ Shutterstock.com.

As more veterans and active-duty military service members enroll in higher education, and particularly in distance learning programs, institutions across the country are under increasing pressure to rethink how they serve and support these growing student populations.

The Online Learning Consortium, formerly known as the Sloan Consortium, recently brought together expert panelists over a four-part webinar to share best practices for serving these students. If you’re looking for ways to make your institution more veteran- and military-friendly, their insights and advice could prove helpful.

Military and veteran students need supports tailored to their lives. Credit: Sean Locke Photography/Shutterstock.com.As more veterans and active-duty military service members enroll in higher education, and particularly in distance learning programs, institutions across the country are under increasing pressure to rethink how they serve and support these growing student populations.

The Online Learning Consortium, formerly known as the Sloan Consortium, recently brought together expert panelists over a four-part webinar to share best practices for serving these students. If you’re looking for ways to make your institution more veteran- and military-friendly, their insights and advice could prove helpful.

Following are our favorite tips and strategies shared by presenters.

1. Understand who your students are

You can’t provide effective support services to your veterans and military students and their families if you don’t first know who they are and what challenges they face. That’s according to Dawn Bilodeau, chief of Department of Defense Voluntary Education. She’s responsible for oversight and administration of adult, nontraditional, voluntary, continuing and postsecondary education programs for the DOD worldwide. She’s also the spouse of a veteran.

Military students are typically employed full-time, and unless they have a combat-acquired disability, that’s often the case for veterans as well. That means that they’re more likely to attend college on a part-time basis, taking on average three courses per year. Also, the majority complete their postsecondary education only after leaving the military, and after attending multiple institutions, she said.

However, Jorge Trevino, a lecturer and advisor at the Penn State World Campus and a Navy veteran, noted that even though students may have acquired disabilities as a result of their military service, they are not likely to see themselves as “disabled.” For that reason, getting them to self-disclose and seek out disability accommodations that can help them succeed may require a different approach, he said. Focusing on access rather than disability in conversations with such students can help.

Kathy Snead, the director of Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges, additionally noted that many military students and veteran students are also first-generation students. They may be entirely unfamiliar with everything they must do to enroll. She suggests creating a checklist and time line so they don’t miss any important steps or deadlines.

These students, like other adults, may also need an orientation to online learning, help with IT compatibility and access issues, and tutorial and remedial assistance.

2. Optimize prior learning assessment opportunities

Carol A. Berry, director of Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support — or DANTES — a Department of Defense program, believes institutions should put PLA opportunities front and center, since veterans and military students bring so much real-world expertise to the table.

She also noted that for military students, often in combat positions, attending class virtually and doing homework is difficult. “When studying in these conditions, you have to maximize your time,” she said. “PLA makes sense because at the end of the day, it’s about completing that degree.”

But institutions should go beyond prior learning assessment portfolios and College Level Examination Programs tests, and offer students additional ways of earning PLA credits, she said. For instance, end-of-course exams meant to assess everything students learned over the semester could be easily adapted for students who feel they have the knowledge covered in those courses.

Plus, students could complete massive open online courses or access other open educational resources on their own schedule and free of charge, then take those end-of-year exams through their institutions for credits, she suggested.

Institutions could additionally help students convert professional credentials and military training into college credits to help them make speedier progress toward their degrees, she noted. The new Joint Services Transcript for members of the Army, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and Navy can facilitate that process, she said.

The JST provides evidence for postsecondary institutions of learning that has taken place through military training and occupational experiences. The DOD contracts with the American Council on Education to validate such experiences via its Military Evaluations Program, and issues credit recommendations.

3. Provide support services specific to veterans, military students

Like other adult learners, veterans and active-duty military students must juggle myriad competing responsibilities, but they also face some very unique challenges. Institutions should provide support services to address those specific challenges, noted Kelly Wilmeth, the associate vice president of stateside military support and partnerships for the University of Maryland University College. She suggested offering:

  • Dedicated advising teams designed to meet the needs of veterans, military students and their family members. Advisors should understand that both groups have different and unique needs and should be available 24/7 to accommodate students in different time zones and with odd schedules.
  • Integrated career and academic advising. Advisors should be able to sit down individually with students to figure out how their intended majors integrate into career opportunities and paths, she said.
  • Individualized degree mapping. Advisors shouldn’t help students only with major selection, but should also help them plan out their coursework so students understand what their academic life will look like as much as two or three years out.
  • Help transitioning from active-duty to civilian status. Institutions should “try to ensure a soft landing for them,” she said.
  • Front-line staff on military installations who can provide a full suite of student services. These should include application and registration assistance, academic advising, evaluation of military experience and other sources of transfer credits, and help understanding their tuition assistance benefits.
  • On-campus and virtual veterans resource centers. These should provide one-stop shopping for students, offering academic support, career advising, mentoring, information about educational benefits, and the chance to network with their peers.
  • Student groups. Student Veterans of America chapters provide student-veterans at institutions across the country support and advocacy. Reach out to your veterans and encourage them to create a local chapter.
  • VetSuccess on Campus program participation. Administered by the Department of Veterans Affairs, this program aims to assist veterans and their dependents succeed in postsecondary education through the coordinated delivery of on-campus benefits assistance and counseling. Through the program, institutions can also have vocational rehabilitation counselors embedded on campus to provide on-site support.
  • A Veterans Certification Office. This unit should perform the critical function of explaining the benefits associated with each chapter of the GI Bill and serve as a liaison between student-veterans and the VA.
  • Veteran and military student orientations. These orientations should address issues specific to these student populations, plus connect students with advisors, faculty and others on campus who can provide assistance and support while students are enrolled.
Retention
9/18/2014 12:00 AM

While it’s critical that you have a clear understanding of the needs and challenges faced by military and veteran students, it’s just as important that the faculty members and advisors those students interact with regularly understand those things.

While it’s critical that you have a clear understanding of the needs and challenges faced by military and veteran students, it’s just as important that the faculty members and advisors those students interact with regularly understand those things.

For one, military students and veterans tend to have a “bulletproof mentality,” which can keep them from sharing their difficulties and asking for help, said David M. Acuff, a senior enlisted advisor at DANTES and online education alumnus. If those who deal with these students regularly know that, they’re more likely to be proactive about asking whether students are doing OK and referring them to helpful student services and resources, he noted.

Professors should also understand that sometimes, technology challenges related to deployment, such as unstable Internet connections, limited time for class engagement, and communication blackouts, can get in the way of students’ abilities to meet deadlines. And for students deployed in remote locations, access to academic resources can hinder their ability to produce research papers.

Flexibility is key to helping students dealing with those situations, he said. Plus, sometimes students aren’t allowed to disclose certain details of their situations due to the need for operational security, so instructors should know not to press.

Juliana Mercer, the California program manager for Hire America’s Heroes, and current distance learner, additionally explained that instructors and advisors should know who the key contacts are for student services units across the institution, so they can easily refer students to needed assistance.

“Military students may not want to ask for help, so sometimes it’s good for someone to come to us and point us to help and let us know exactly what’s available,” she said.

Meanwhile, Mark Ridley, an associate at Booz Allen Hamilton who has worked in higher education in various capacities, pointed to the need for professors to provide detailed syllabi so students can plan their work well ahead of time to accommodate possible deployment and other unexpected events.

And advisors should help students schedule related courses in sequences so that students don’t forget material from one course that can be helpful in the next, such as Algebra 1101 and 1102, he added.

Beyond just receiving syllabi early, students should also be given plenty of lead time to acquire required course materials, added Don Stumpf, the campus director of Columbia College - Fort Stewart. He recommends establishing partnerships with textbook vendors and leveraging e-resources to ensure that students can get the course materials they need in time, even when deployed in remote locations.

Students Speak: Yana Feldman
11/26/2014 12:00 AM

Yana Feldman emigrated to the United States from Russia with her family when she was just a toddler. She grew up in Philadelphia and set out to establish a career as a ballet dancer and teacher after high school. But finding opportunities were scarce in that area, she enrolled at Temple University with encouragement from her parents.

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  • Meet the Editor

    Cynthia Gomez
    Managing Editor

    Cynthia Gomez became the editor of Recruiting & Retaining Adult Learners, formerly known as Nontraditional Students Report, in 2010. She has covered higher education for more than a decade, and has written and edited pamphlets and books for higher education audiences.
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