According to the American Council on Education, only 34% of nontraditional students complete their degrees. Nontraditional students are defined by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) as students age 25 and up and enrolled in undergraduate programs.
Dr. Marybeth Gasman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, suggests community colleges can learn from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) by using “culturally relevant pedagogy” in their classrooms. Ladson Billings coined the term in 1994 and described it as a pedagogy that “empowers students intellectually, socially, emotionally and politically by using cultural referents to impart knowledge, skills and attitudes.”
Adjusting pedagogical delivery to meet the needs of the nontraditional student population would not only improve outcomes, but would equip students to better deal with stress. Many community college students are faced with high levels of stress, according to the Too Distressed to Learn report. The report states that only 8% of community colleges have appropriate on-site psychiatric faculty to treat their students’ stress levels, compared to 58% of four-year colleges and universities.
Adapting culturally relevant pedagogy in community college classrooms could help create democratic learning spaces of support for “at-risk” adult student populations. For many nontraditional students with multiple jobs and families at home, a collaborative model of education would be a lot less stressful than the traditional forms of assessment: extensive reading, testing and sorting by ability.
Marginalized students, many of whom are nontraditional, have rarely experienced solidarity in the classroom. Many have experienced trauma in the K-12 system due to neglect, instability and lack of wrap-around supports to aid their emotional needs. It is incorrect to assume that the adults emerging from the secondary systems no longer need emotional supports just because they are chronologically older. The competitive model in higher education seeks to erase those former experiences, instead of developing students from an asset-based lens that is rooted in their unique histories and present circumstances.
Using culturally relevant pedagogy in the higher education classroom can empower and inspire resilience in nontraditional students. Drs. Sally Ann Goncalves and Dunja Trunk said older students in community colleges are at “greater risk” of not graduating than their younger, traditional counterparts. Community colleges have broadened access to include nontraditional students, but they have also struggled to graduate them.
Reforming higher education classrooms could improve student outcomes and reduce their length of stay in college. This, in turn, would reduce their debt loads and increase their quality of life.
Higher education must reform its pedagogical strategies to better accommodate nontraditional students in the classroom. According to the NCES, the nontraditional student population is expected to grow considerably in the coming years. Culturally relevant pedagogy offers a momentous opportunity for higher education institutions to better meet the demands of nontraditional students while increasing the possibility of persistence, lower attrition rates and improved outcomes. It is an inexpensive intervention that requires little more than role modeling, building solidarity, establishing mutual bonds of trust – all through supportive practices in the classroom.
Kemuel Benyehudah earned his master’s degree in the Higher Education program at the University of Pennsylvania, Graduate School of Education. He is interested in adult learners, non-traditional students and access and equity issues related to men of color.