Accelerating through Postsecondary Education

Published jan. 11, 2013

In Patricia McQuire’s response to a recent article in The New York Times (“For Poor, Leap to College Often Ends in a Hard Fall,” 12/22/2012), she makes an important point that nontraditional students have a very different college going and college completion trajectory than their more traditional (or more economically advantaged) peers. McGuire, the president of Trinity Washington University, discusses the many challenges these students face—from parenting or caring for sick elders to the need to work full-time, often just to pay for part time study—and shares a powerful set of strategies that Trinity has in place to provide the supports that are vital to the success of nontraditional students.

Further, McGuire argues that using the outmoded yardstick of 4-year graduation rates for these youth does them (and the system) a disservice. It is important to do longer-term tracking of the progress of these students as they move through their postsecondary experience so we can learn more about the stopping out and returning patterns of college students struggling with a welter of social, economic, and family challenges. And we might well find that 4-year graduation rates obscure the long-term educational accomplishments that many of these students eventually achieve.

At Jobs for the Future, in our work with colleges and their community partners (e.g., Workforce Boards, community agencies, public schools), we have found that for many nontraditional students, the best bet is to enroll in programs of study that offer a relatively quick connection to high-demand careers through sub-BA credentials that are “stackable (with additional education people earn subsequent credentials that lead to better jobs with higher pay).” These “best bet” programs of study accelerate the trajectory through postsecondary education, preparing students for entry into high-growth, middle-skill careers that pay well on entry and have advancement potential. They can be completed in one or two years or less, leading to a credential with value in the labor market and jobs in an in-demand industry. These programs are often offered by a community college and most importantly, in the best cases, these credentials are stackable. Once students finish their first credential and get that good first job, they can return for more education and training, access better and better jobs, and continue on a pathway that allows them to pay for further education without so much pain and difficulty.

Using what we call our Counseling to Careers framework we assist community colleges and their partners to find these “best bet” programs of study (and careers) and make the information very transparent to students and their families as well as the many advisors in the community that assist students in making postsecondary education choices. We believe (and recent research supports the idea) that making a focused and informed choice of a program of study early on improves students’ chances both of getting to and getting through a first college credential. And we support the notion that not all programs of study are created equal. So for students with limited time and means to get a college education, connecting to a program that provides a quick route to the labor market in a career area with great advancement potential is a very smart way to do college.

And if colleges also welcome nontraditional students and have an array of students in place to boot, then students have a even better chance to succeed.

Terry Grobe is a program director at JFF, which works with its partners to design and drive adoption of education and career pathways leading from college readiness to career advancement for those struggling to succeed in today’s economy.

Photograph copyright Mary Beth Meehan, 2010