The Latino Adult Student Success Academy andSouth Texas College: Perspectives From a Participant
by Carlo Bertolini on Jun 27, 2023
This is part of a blog series on the second Latino Adult Student Success Academy.
Tony Matamoros is director of student engagement and completion services for South Texas College, a federally designated Hispanic Serving Institution. In 2018, STC was one of fifteen postsecondary institutions selected for CAEL's inaugural Latino Adult Student Success (LASS) Academy. With STC currently building on that experience through participation in a second cohort, Tony, who is STC's lead contact for the LASS Academy, reflected on what the Academy experience has meant to STC.
Prior to joining the Academy, STC had already implemented measures important to adult learner success, including credit for prior learning, competency-based programs, and forging workforce partnerships. Tony recalled approaching the initial three-year LASS Academy with the intention of better leveraging best practices, especially around engagement and enrollment processes. "We were set up to serve all students through our enrollment processes," he said. 'But we quickly learned through involvement in the Academy that we needed to be more deliberate and understanding that this population [of adult Latino learners] has faced unique challenges and needs."
Tony and his colleagues would find the Academy a source of inspiration for restructuring processes and procedures to provide highly customized support. "If it had not been for my involvement with CAEL, I would have not been able to move us forward in this vision," he said. "We learned a lot through our involvement with CAEL, networking with other institutions, best practices, technical training, and professional development."
STC began by creating a series of communications specialized for adult learners who had enrolled but later stopped out. Along with well-refined messaging, STC better tailored support at the individual adult learner level. The college assigned adult learners a single point of contact, who allowed them to circumvent the traditional series of handoffs to different departments.
Most of these learners were also working, taking care of families, or both. They didn't have the time to come to campus to access resources in traditional ways. It was through this dynamic that one of the pandemic's few silver linings emerged. "Like many institutions, we went from hosting events on campus to building in virtual support," Tony recalled. "As we continued these marketing and enrollment strategies, we actually found that we had a higher response rate from students when they had virtual support."
STC held a focus group following the formal conclusion of the initial cohort to capture the student perspective of how the Academy had impacted the adult learner experience. "We found that the students really felt inspired and motivated by the communications that were going out," said Tony, crediting the Academy's technical assistance for helping STC craft verbiage that spoke to the student population. "They weren't just getting generic communication."
In fact, STC had built a case-management model for recruiting adult learners that leans heavily on CRM and mobile messaging technologies. "We've found that adults really appreciate communicating with our enrollment specialists via their mobile phones," said Tony, again stressing the importance of offering an integrated source of support for adult learners. To be sure, offering a seamless experience began with ensuring that adult learners didn't have to initiate new contact with STC departments to receive assistance. But now, having streamlined internal support, Tony said his department is working to engage community agencies so it can integrate external wraparound services such as child care, financial subsidies, and transportation into its support framework.
'Tony and the South Texas College team did an exceptional job during the first LASS Academy Cohort of not only committing to understanding the needs of Latino adult learners but applying their learning to make significant, deep-rooted, systemic and strategic enhancements to how they work with adult learners,' said Rafael Pasillas, director of initiatives for CAEL.
Pasillas, who serves as the primary liaison for all participating Academy institutions, added that while targeted and intentional communications helped STC connect with potential students, it was the college's unrelenting focus on making sure faculty and staff were prepared to meet the needs of these learners once they arrived on campus that made all the difference. 'They created a streamlined onboarding experience that covered college support services as well as external wraparound services. That 'one-stop' solution for adult learners exemplifies South Texas College's commitment to meeting students where they are.'
Looking at quantitative outcomes, the inaugural LASS Academy cohort faced previously unimaginable disruptions to enrollment because of the pandemic. Still, there were signs of overall stability in Latino adult student enrollment among the 15 institutions, with five of them seeing major increases (29 to 65 percent).
At STC, "The reality is that our adult learner population has increased by a lot. We had more than 8,000 enrolled in the last fall semester," Tony said, crediting much of that improvement to Academy-driven initiatives. For example, STC is working with several military and government agencies through upskilling and reskilling partnerships, and the personalized service enabled by the case-management approach has been the most effective method of recruiting learners to these opportunities, he said.
The student experience isn't the only thing that evolved through the Academy process. Before it began, Tony led enrollment services for high school students participating in STC's dual credit program. "The administration made a decision after the last Academy that it was time that we have a department that specifically serves adult enrollment needs," he said. So his team of 15 was redeployed in a new office for just that purpose. He described that as a bold but beneficial decision "We're not forgetting about the enrollment needs of our high school students, but we're seeing the demand and the growth in adult learner enrollment."
The office of student engagement and completion was commissioned in 2021 and began operating in 2022. It prioritizes three areas crucial for adult learners: working with employers to recruit students in need of upskilling or reskilling, helping transition adult learners from nonacademic to academic programs, and serving the large number of adults with some college but no credential.
These commitments will be focal points for Tony during the current Academy cohort. He especially hopes to research the experiences of other institutions who incorporate case management within their adult learner programs. He also hopes to complement STC's progress in enrollment strategies with holistic approaches to persistence and completion and workforce placement, areas that offer promising potential to scale STC's earlier Academy work.