Student-Centered Education for a Diverse 21st Century Population

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by Elena Sandoval-Lucero

Elena Sandoval-Lucero

Elena Sandoval-Lucero

The population of the U.S. is increasingly diverse, a trend mirrored in the college student population. Education that keeps the student at the center is the expectation of students and their families. Ideally, this student-centered approach would include: affordable tuition; small class sizes; personalized attention; individualized instruction that meets students where they are; diversity experiences that build cultural competence; contextualized learning that increases relevance; internship and immersive learning experiences that allow students to develop both skills and knowledge; and support to transition to their next phase.

Community colleges are best equipped to provide an educational experience that meets such high expectations. And, considering the fact that almost half of all students in the U.S. who are enrolled in a crowded higher education landscape are enrolled at community colleges, a diverse segment of students already have discovered the benefits engrained within this learning environment.

Community colleges, by their mission, provide multiple avenues to pursue higher education, as well as a broad range of educational experiences. Some of the expectation that there is only one correct path to achievement in higher education is removed, and more diverse views of what constitutes student success are allowed.

Community colleges are charged with providing instruction for transfer preparation, career training and developmental education. Therefore, a more diverse group of students can access postsecondary education regardless of whether they are planning to transfer to a baccalaureate degree-granting institution, need to complete remedial work or ESL courses before beginning college-level work or are interested in training for a specific career. The latter is enhanced by close ties between community colleges and their communities, allowing for a quick response to educational and workforce needs.

The diversity experienced at community colleges also has multiple benefits for all students in terms of broadening their worldview and developing cultural competence. To capitalize on this, community colleges view the current diversity of the college student population from an asset mindset, specifically in terms of the social and cultural backgrounds their students bring to college, and utilize those traits to support their success. This includes acknowledging the importance and continued presence of family members within their college experience.

The concept of individual consideration, nonetheless, remains at the center of all discussions of student success. Diverse college students, while newer to the college student population, are still individuals. Each one comes to college with a unique set of experiences, expectations and needs. In order to become more student centered and asset minded, diverse college students need to be viewed as individuals with unique qualities that can enhance the college environment, as well as their own college experience.

If it sounds like a complex mission, it is. However, there are multiple examples of how community colleges are achieving the goal of providing a relevant, enriching, affordable, accessible, individualized college experience to a diverse population of college students.

Community College of Aurora is a Colorado Community College serving about 11,500 students. Yet, the college is still able to provide a student-centered environment. We are small enough to get to know students and large enough to offer numerous programs that will meet a wide variety of educational goals. Some specific examples of how the college designs programs with the diversity of our population at the center include:

The Healthcare Bridge Program is a new program that bridges linguistic gaps by integrating ESL and Health Sciences curriculum. It helps students to move into an immediate health care certificate or allows them to “stack” credentials to move into other allied health programs. Stackable certificates add value to each other and expand the knowledge base of the student to give future employers flexibility in staffing. This program also allows students to begin career-oriented coursework while completing the ESL sequence in a contextualized learning environment that allows for language development and academic success. It also fills a need for culturally appropriate health care within a diverse community.

The Transfer Success Program was designed based on the first-year experience model. The program provides contextualized learning and an intrusive model of support made up of five key elements, which include a college success course, case management, intrusive advising, four-year college visits and transfer planning. The program serves a majority of diverse, first-generation and underresourced students, with initial results after two years showing promise in terms of grades, persistence, retention, graduation and transfer.

Dr. Elena Sandoval-Lucero is vice president of student affairs at Community College of Aurora in Aurora, Colorado.

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