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How Shasta College is Helping Working Adult Learners to Come up ACEs

Posted by Carlo Bertolini

Topics: Workforce Development, Success Stories, Best Practices, Trends in Higher Education, Adult Learning, Adult Learning Success, Adult Learner 360, Skills Gap, online learning, college completion, reverse transfer, accelerated program, degrees when due, degree reclamation

Shasta College successfully implements accelerated programs, gateway programs to four-year degrees, and a degree-reclamation program to help working adult learners achieve success in degree completion and work.

When an ideal setting for innovation connects with the ideal resources to make it happen, good things follow. Consider the Redding, California area, its working adult learners, and Shasta College.

Though part of the 115-institution California Community College system, Shasta College is uniquely isolated. Located halfway between Sacramento and the Oregon border, it is the only public postsecondary institution in a three-county region, covering 10,000 square miles in California’s Far North.

Buffy Tanner is Shasta’s Director of Innovation and Special Projects. She has spent her entire professional life in higher ed. As a student, she worked in residence life and academic peer advising. She then became an advisor within discipline and study abroad programs. A native of Redding, she earned her bachelor’s degree at UC Davis, then returned to the Far North to work with the UC Davis Educational Talent Search/College OPTIONS program in 2003. Its mission is to increase postsecondary access for students from low-income families. She helped grow the program from a single federal Talent Search grant to a five-county regional collaboration that engages with K-16 students. In 2016, Buffy began consulting for Shasta College. She knew her hometown had ample opportunities to satisfy her passion for improving access to postsecondary education. Within a few months, she had joined the college full time, focusing on helping adults returning to college for an associate or bachelor’s degree.

Shasta’s service area is ruggedly beautiful. Parts of it would redefine the concept of rural held by most colleges. Some areas are classified “frontier” by the federal government. Like so many places in the country, the region faces challenges created by workforce disruption. For many years, its economy thrived on resource extraction. Logging and mining jobs with good benefits and pay were available to workers without postsecondary education – often without a high school diploma. But over the past few decades, mines and mills have shuttered. Today, jobs that offer living wages tend to be in government, education, and health care. Owing to the area’s beauty, there is also a large recreation and tourism industry, which boosts the retail sector. However, many of these jobs are seasonal. The Far North may be relatively isolated, but it is part of a familiar national trend. More and more jobs that provide a living wage require some level of postsecondary education.

Shasta College wanted to make it easier for displaced workers to access education that would connect them with viable career paths. It had reviewed regional data that showed that more than 30 percent of adults over 25 had completed some college but no degree. In 2016, Shasta combined this research with additional data it gained through CAEL’s comprehensive survey tool for assessing institutional capacities for serving adult learners. The results helped guide the college’s implementation of programs to help reengage with stopouts and other adult learners in the area.

The first initiative that came out of the school’s renewed focus on adult learners was its ACE program, which introduced accelerated classes at Shasta. ACE’s compressed timeline allows students to complete a class in eight weeks. Originally, classes were evenly split between hybrid and online offerings; currently, classes are primarily online. However, hybrid classes follow a consistent schedule of Tuesday and Thursday evenings from 6 – 9 p.m.

Adult learners tend to have a wide variety of prior learning, from previous classroom work to competencies gained in the workplace. Shasta counselors work with each student to help them progress through the program as efficiently as possible. Depending on recognized prior credits, students can complete a certificate or degree through the ACE program in 4 to 24 months.

However, success isn’t just measured in speed of completion. ACE facilitators monitor every student’s registration on a weekly basis, and their grades after every eight-week block. They ensure they stay registered for the current term and register for upcoming terms. The moment they spot a red flag, such as dropping a course or falling below a C average, they engage the student with a counselor to get them back on track. If a student indicates they are taking a break, Shasta designates them with a planned-leave status. Although not a formal status, the denotation allows staff to track the students in an inhouse database. “We determine with students when they think they will come back so we can start following up with them accordingly with reminders so they can register in time,” said Tanner.

To cultivate comradery while maintaining flexibility, the program employs an open-cohort model. “Students don’t have to be lockstep with other students, but there definitely is a strong sense of community among them, largely because they look around and see others who look like them rather than being in a sea of 18-year-olds,” said Tanner. To help accommodate students who may not have access to broadband internet, Shasta maintains multiple computer labs with extended hours. In addition to its main campus in Redding, the center point of the three counties, there are three computer labs within the school’s service area, at extended education sites in Red Bluff, Burney, and Weaverville.

Shasta ensures that both students and faculty understand that accelerated doesn’t mean “skipped.” “We tell instructors and students we don’t remove content, we don’t water it down,” said Tanner. “We tell students they need to expect to spend about nine hours per week on a class in a normal timeline, so compressing it into half the time means they need to spend about 18 hours per week. For someone taking two classes in the ACE program, that means 36 hours per week. We are upfront about what it takes to be successful.”

Sometimes, students tell Tanner that attending classes and studying feels like working another full-time job. But, she says, most end up appreciating the pace. “Students like that there is no time to waste. When you have a full semester class, you have ebbs and flows where you might be able to slack off. But in an eight-week class you have a paper or test each week, sometimes more. Students know they have to make use of every spare moment. Procrastination is not an option.” When classes finish for a term and ACE students face a three-week break, Tanner says she receives a flurry of emails from students wondering why the next courses can’t start right away.

A minority of students worry they might be rushing through the material. Ironically, Tanner finds that it is students with less hectic schedules who typically share this concern – those not working full-time or actively parenting. “They have a little more free time and may want to take a class at a full-semester pace, and they have that option,” said Tanner. “It’s not a restrictive program. If you want to trade out some classes for full-semester classes, you can. But that will mean a longer completion time.”

Most often, Tanner hears that the ACE format allows students who work and have families to balance everything. Given the accelerated pace, they are sometimes surprised at how much they retain from a class. “When they’re going through, sometimes they worry about remembering everything. But when they go on to the next class, like accounting 2 to accounting 4, they realize how much they really did learn,” said Tanner. “Students are incredibly demanding of themselves, which is a hallmark of adult learners. Once they get over that fear and anxiety of being a student again, and they find out that they can, they will agonize over only getting a B+. That’s the adult learner.”

Tanner acknowledged some faculty are tentative about accelerated learning. Faculty who have taught summer school, which itself leverages a compressed learning experience, tend to be most open to it initially. But almost all of them become enthusiasts once they’ve taught in it. “What happened was that we started the program and the faculty who had committed discovered what we all know about adult learners: They are amazing students, and they are prepared,” said Tanner. “When you say, ‘Read chapters one and two,’ they actually read chapters one and two. They start talking about what a joy it was to teach these classes. Once they try it, they want to teach it permanently.”

About 120 students have completed certificates or degrees since its 2016 launch. Initially, ACE offered just two pathways: business and psychology. “Business is so applicable to many fields, but county social services are pretty robust in the area, and we have lot of nonprofit social services entities as well, so a degree in psychology is also useful,” explained Tanner. The program has since added associate degrees in administration of justice, communications studies, and sociology. More programs are on the way. “We are in conversation with faculty in early childhood education and health information technology to create ACE pathways, which would support Shasta’s participation in a pilot program of 15 community colleges in California who have been chosen to offer bachelor’s degrees in health information management,” said Tanner.

A Bold Approach

Shasta has done great work in helping learners earn certificates and associate degrees directly aligned with viable careers and industries. To complement these efforts, it offers a program to help area learners complete a four-year degree: the Bachelor’s through Online and Local Degrees program (BOLD). It enhances Shasta’s role as a gateway to four-year degrees by mapping online and hybrid pathways for four-year-degree completion. Associated institutions include Simpson University (a private institution in Redding), California State University-Chico (about 75 miles southeast of Redding), and National University, a private school. All institutions linked to the BOLD program are regionally accredited, nonprofit, and offer total tuition under $20,000 for degree completion. But BOLD students are free to choose any institution for completing their four-year degrees. Shasta staff are conscientious about counseling them as they make enrollment decisions. “We make sure students understand what a for-profit school means,” Tanner said. “Because we are in an economically depressed area where there isn’t a college-going culture, students are often unaware of the importance of regional accreditation, and they aren’t clear about the difference between for-profit and non-profit in higher education.”

As it does with the ACE program, Shasta helps students prioritize areas of study that align with gainful, growing employment. “We dug deeper into specific academic majors where bachelor’s degrees generally lead to living-wage opportunities in our local economic area like computer information technology, social work, or early childhood education, things that are in high demand,” said Tanner. “We created templates so students can compare programs online at different institutions to compare costs and the transfer process.”

Perhaps the most innovative aspect of the program is how it keeps students centered as they embark on a maze of online paths. BOLD students have the option of enrolling in a series of one-unit classes at Shasta concurrent with their four-year studies. It begins with a student development 40 class called “Getting Connected to Your University.” It prompts students to investigate what resources are available at their online school. That includes how to find their financial aid advisor, making an appointment with their academic advisor, and making sure their community college work has been evaluated as part of an overall education plan with all requirements for graduation spelled out. Subsequent classes help them prepare to apply for jobs. The final one prepares students for graduate school, including assessing the cost and need for a graduate degree. The series of one-credit courses may be taken regardless of whether students choose a program featured in the BOLD program or pursue their bachelor’s with another institution.

Tanner has seen students benefit from the courses in several ways. “Some students have no problems with online learning and feel no need to connect with other students,” said Tanner. “But others find that sometimes it’s a little bit isolating, especially if their program is not cohort based. The series creates a faux cohort for students from our local area, where they’ll see those same students from term to term. They may be students pursuing other disciplines at other schools, but they all share the same experiences of working adults.”

Another way the one-unit classes help is the access they provide to learning resources typically not available in an online program. “When students utilize an online institution, they can’t just walk over to a library and talk to a librarian,” Shasta said. “But since BOLD students are still technically enrolled at Shasta, they can use our library, health center, tutoring center, and computer labs.” The Shasta College Foundation pays the unit and campus fees, allowing BOLD students to remain registered as a Shasta student. “It costs the students nothing but a small amount of time to work on things they should be doing anyway,” noted Tanner.

Degrees When Due

Institutions, employers, and regional economies benefit on many levels when students earn certificates and degrees that support talent pipelines in key industries. Yet there are 36 million former students in the U.S. who have completed some college but did not receive a degree. About 10 percent of them have earned at least two years of academic credit. This categorizes them as “potential completers1. As we have seen, Shasta College has a robust process for reaching out to stopout students in its area. But what if some of these potential completers are actual completers?

To help investigate near completers, Shasta College partnered with the Institute for Higher Education Policy’s Degrees When Due degree reclamation program. “It’s another angle to take when reengaging students who have left your institution without a degree,” said Tanner. There are two focus populations. One is students who left Shasta without a degree or certificate and did not go anywhere else. The other is students who left to transfer to a four-year institution but did not earn a bachelor’s degree. “Some may have gone three or four years with no degree at all,” Tanner noted.

To select candidates under the Degrees When Due program, Shasta looked at data from 2013-2018. It identified students who had completed at least 45 units with a GPA of at least 2.0. After applying additional filters linked to near completion, they defined a population of about 600 students who had left without claiming a degree. Manual degree audits are time consuming and labor intensive. Yet Shasta counselors completed one for each student. They found that about 225 had earned enough credits for a degree. “Maybe they were going for a transfer associate degree but didn’t quite hit all requirements for that degree,” explained Tanner. “But they may have earned enough units for a local associate degree in basic business. If you shifted a bit to a related degree, it turns out they had met the requirements.”

Last fall, staff reached out to those students with the good news. If students accept the degree (a few don’t), Shasta backdates the degree to the appropriate year and mails the diploma. Most students are delighted. Some ask for information on how to continue to a bachelor’s degree.

Eighty students from the audit had met all requirements except for a local computer literacy class. Shasta contacted these to offer an online assessment or, if necessary, a course. “Thanks to workplace experience, they typically pass the assessment just fine” Tanner said.

The remaining students tended to be short of a degree by just a few credit hours. Shasta staff reached out to them to explain specifically what they needed to graduate. “We try to steer these candidates into the ACE program so we can tell them they can finish in eight weeks instead of having to wait until next term,” Tanner said. Shasta also accommodates reverse transfer credits in its Degrees When Due program. For these students, Shasta counselors determine what coursework from the four-year program can be accepted. Some students find that coursework from their four-year institution fulfills all remaining associate degree requirements; others may still have a course or two to complete at Shasta.

The Degrees When Due program is in its pilot stage. Thirteen other institutions are participating. Given the proactive philosophy Shasta has taken with so many adult learner touchpoints, it’s not surprising it’s been able to take an accelerated approach during the pilot. “Some institutions didn’t yet have reengagement strategies or reverse transfers,” Tanner pointed out. “Because Shasta already had ACE in place and a structure that is used to working with adults with busy lives, we felt we could take on both adult reengagement and reverse transfer populations.” She also noted that the college is in the process of developing an automated degree-audit system. That should allow the school to cast a wider net when seeking Degrees When Due candidates.

Fortunately for the area’s working adult learners, it doesn’t matter whether they’re just a few credit hours away from a degree or haven’t yet started. Shasta College is ready to help all of them get on the educational path that is best for them.

[1] https://www.the74million.org/article/new-research-some-1m-college-dropouts-returned-to-school-in-the-last-five-years-and-earned-degrees/