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Improving Higher Ed for the Underserved


President Obama issued a challenge to the nation and to Higher Ed when in 2010 he called for 8 million more graduates by the end of this decade.

As we near 2020, about 5 million of these will come through certifications and associate degrees from community colleges. The balance will come through universities.

The White House brought the issue to the forefront again last year by hosting a national summit on the critical need to improve the skills of the nation's workforce. Although it is true that the percentage of degreed adults between the ages of 25 and 64 has been increasing, the gains have been modest.

America, which once set the benchmark by which other nations measured their educational systems, has slipped in the area of degree attainment, with the United States ranking 11th in a 2012 global study.

To meet Obama's challenge, Higher Education must find ways to provide education to these underserved constituencies. But there is no single plan that will work for every underserved group.

The system must identify the needs of each group and devise effective ways to enhance the educational experience for each.

1. Low-Income, First-Generation Students
This group has received a great deal of attention, but progress has lagged in terms of addressing their needs. Many students in this group grew up in families and neighborhoods where no one has previously attended college. Schools in these communities may lack resources or have low expectations of their students. This group also is heavy in minority students, including Native-American, African-American, Latino or Asian.

2. Generation 1.5
Although this group is increasing in number, comparatively little research has focused on it. The students are defined as the children of immigrants and are often foreign-born and/or –educated. These students can be caught between two worlds. Because they are typically highly involved in their native culture, they may have difficulty adjusting to an American campus.

3. Working Adults
Most adult students work a full-time job, and many have spouses and/or children depending on them. As such, they are juggling a variety of demands on their time. Typically, their goal is to earn a degree or credential to further their career goals. With a specific goal in mind and limited time available, this group tends to prefer an educational path that focuses more on the end result than on the "college experience." They are usually not that involved with campus activities. They may also have difficulty understanding why they must take courses that they consider irrelevant to their chosen degree.

How Higher Education Can Help Low-Income Generation and Generation 1.5 Students

Students in these groups can feel alienated by a college environment because many of the encouraged attitudes may run counter at times to the cultural values instilled by their families. Here are some ways that higher ed can help these groups acclimate and thrive.

  1. Realize these students need validation. Staff members need to take the initiative to reach and help students make connections, believe in themselves and view their educational experience in a positive light. One-on-one meetings and campus mixers can help bridge cultural gaps.
  2. Students who are overcoming a personal history that has undermined their confidence may be unable to ask for help. They may have been told this is a sign of weakness, or even that they are not "college material." Well-placed compliments or notes of encouragement on papers can be helpful. The faculty and staff also need to repeatedly inform these students of resources available to them and remind them of the institution's commitment to their success.
  3. Hiring instructors, counselors and staff members with the same ethnicity or cultural background as underserved student groups will provide role models and also gives students access to someone they may feel more comfortable speaking freely with.
  4. Recognize that students with a native language other than English may need additional help. Offering courses in ESL or remedial English can help move them toward success.

    How to Help Working Adults
    Of all the underserved constituencies, institutions have made the most progress in services for working adults. However, there is still work to be done:

    1. Offer more online services. Internet-based registration and enrollment reduces or eliminates the need for working adults to make in-person time in their hectic schedules to complete these activities. Another option is hybrid classes, which combine online classwork with a limited number of on-campus classes.

    2. Embrace the concept of prior learning assessment. Many adult students have acquired knowledge through self-study or on-the-job training. Credit awarded through PLA can help students reach goals faster.

    3. Consider examining degree plans to see if courses can be eliminated. Some may argue this is contrary to the historic goal of providing students with a well-rounded education, but on the other hand, does a marketing major really need to take biology? If total number of hours remains constant, to keep standards high, allowable courses could still be ones most relevant to the specific degree being pursued.

    4. Many working adults begin their education at community colleges or vocational schools. There needs to be greater coordination between universities and other institutions in the area of transferability of credits.

    Reaching underserved students is a large-scale challenge, but it must be faced for America to produce a workforce ready to meet the demands of an increasingly technical world and a global economy.

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If your institution or organization is seeking guidance, solutions, or support from CAEL, or if you have an idea for a future collaboration initiative with us, please reach out. We'd love to connect.

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