Life interferes with nontraditional students
completing their degrees

Western Wyoming Community College is giving its traditional students a bigger bang for their buck. The college’s board of trustees recently implemented a “16 to Succeed” graduation plan that guarantees students a $1,000 bonus for graduating within a timely manner.

It accommodates full-time and part-time students who take an average of 16 or eight credit hours both spring and fall semesters and then graduate within two years (for full-time) or four years (for part-time).

“We tell students to take 16 to succeed because the majority of our associate-degree programs are 64 credits, so 16 credits per semester over four semesters will have them graduating on time, which is the real purpose of this program,” Mark Rembacz, WWCC’s director of student engagement and completion, told the WWCC Mustang Express.

“So if a student wants to take 14 credits in one semester and 18 credits in another, or 15 credits each semester during the school year and another six credits over the summer, that works too,” he continued. “We just want them to have the mindset that they are going to finish their degrees on time and be academically successful. Sixteen credits each semester, on average, should get them there.”
This may sound like a wonderful bonus. But “our modern family” in today’s community colleges consists primarily of nontraditional students, those who aren’t straight out of high school or simply cannot earn a degree within that two- or four-year timeframe. Special bonuses like these as well as other strategies related to the nationwide completion agenda unfortunately leave behind part of “our modern family” at Laramie County Community College or other community colleges across the country.

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) loosely defines a nontraditional student as one who has any of the following characteristics: delays enrollment (does not enter postsecondary education in the same calendar year he or she finished high school); attends part time for at least part of the academic year; works full time (35 hours or more a week) while enrolled; is considered financially independent for purposes of determining eligibility for financial aid; has dependents other than a spouse (usually children, but sometimes others); is a single parent (either unmarried or married but separated and has dependents); or does not have a high school diploma (completed high school with a GED or other high school completion certificate or did not finish high school).
Not long ago community colleges catered to the more nontraditional student rather than the traditional one, a phrase defined by the NCES as one who earns a high school diploma, enrolls full time immediately after finishing high school, depends on parents for financial support, and either does not work during the school year or works part time.

Despite the facts that, as of 2008, 36 percent of undergraduate students were 25 or older and 47 percent were “independent students” (married, orphans, veterans or responsible for dependents), community colleges seemed to be focused on students completing their education as soon as possible.

Yet any number of situations could prevent a student from obtaining his degree within a “timely manner.” So many teens are having children at a younger age, which makes attending college extremely difficult. (See stories on Pages 15 and 20.) Others may have had to go straight into the workforce after high school to help with finances or support their families. (See story on Page 19.)
Numerous high school graduates are immediately joining the armed forces and must postpone their postsecondary education. (See story on Page 16-17.) And some students may just flat out be unprepared for the college experience. (See story on Page 18.)
Another reason some students aren’t completing their degrees “on time” is the high costs of postsecondary education. Some students simply cannot afford to attend college and obtain a degree of any kind.

Community colleges should not play favorites

Regardless of one’s circumstances, a community college should not favor one type of student over another.

WWCC’s “16 to Succeed” plan shuts out students who have other responsibilities and focuses on the younger, less financially obligated students who can “make academics their No. 1 priority,” as stated in the commitment agreement on WWCC’s “16 to Succeed” website.
WWCC claimed it was concerned that “many students may be taking longer than necessary to complete their two-year degrees.”
Delta Winds: A Magazine of Student Essays, A Publication of San Joaquin Delta College in California said: “Instead of making education a diverse and interactive environment where one challenges known assumptions and probes mysterious realms of thought, it has become one where the same topics are taught repetitively every year, making students cynical and unconcerned about real learning. Rather, students care much more about getting an A and graduating with their degree on time. The romantic notion of learning for the sake of increasing one's understanding is no longer practiced. This is mainly due to the mass production methods now being applied to higher learning.”

A familiar trend is happening across the country where graduation numbers are far more worrisome to boards of trustees than the actual art of learning.

All colleges need to accommodate both kinds of students, traditional and nontraditional. This is accomplished by “making connections with students that will facilitate academic success and enrich the students’ experience at LCCC,” as the LCCC Faculty Senate outlined in its recent draft on defining the role of faculty in academic advising.

The Faculty Senate and Wingspan have concerns about the recent policy changes regarding the holistic advising model. How is one student supposed to be set on the right path if he is restricted to meeting with one designated general adviser who is unfamiliar with that path? A general adviser certainly won’t know as much about a particular major and career opportunities as a faculty adviser.

Faculty senate advocates faculty advisors

In its draft, the LCCC Faculty Senate supported the idea of students keeping in contact with general advisers for needs such as financial aid. But it advocated students meeting with faculty advisers-–those to whom students become close and truly learn from.

The No. 1 reason students drop out or don’t even attend college is financial. LCCC is on the right track with recommending the Wyoming Community College Commission not to increase tuition for the 2015-2016 academic year. (See story on Page 10.) And LCCC has done a great job of reworking the developmental English and math courses as well as piloting an embedded tutor program. (See story on Page 2.) But more work needs to be done.

Dangling $1,000 bonuses under the noses of students will not motivate them to learn…rushing through college as fast as they can, perhaps. Researching the needs of nontraditional students, Wingspan offers the following recommendations:
Providing a better advising procedure would be a start on the right path by allowing students to contact faculty who are better equipped to advise in their major.

A more intrusive and straightforward explanation of how to obtain financial aid, which is where the general adviser should come into play, would also help students along their path. But some students have complained about never even being told about financial aid support by the general advisers.

Providing a reasonably priced child care facility is desperately needed on campus. LCCC’s Children’s Discovery Center is aimed at providing early education majors a place to do hands-on research and learning. While it is providing high-quality child care, students complain the pricing is far too expensive for them to take their child, and that’s if an opening is available because anyone in Cheyenne is allowed to enroll his child. LCCC needs to provide a structure that favors student parents by offering a priority enrollment for them at a cost appropriate for students with limited income. LCCC students cannot compete with what professionals from the community can afford to pay for quality child care near campus.

Another way to get students on the right path is providing on-campus or near-campus family housing. Rentals are scarce, and mortgages are pricey, so students are having to dig deep into their pockets to find a place to live. Land has recently been rezoned near campus for family housing. (See story on Page 11.) Wingspan also encourages the trustees to move family housing accommodations up the college’s construction list.

If LCCC’s mission is truly “to transform our students’ lives through the power of inspired learning,” then in order to transform the lives of “our modern family,” LCCC must remember the challenges nontraditional students face to complete a degree.