Colorado Joins National Effort To Help Older Students Access Community College

Students studying in a common area on Front Range Community College's Westminster campus, April 23, 2021.Students studying in a common area on Front Range Community College's Westminster campus, April 23, 2021.Paolo Zialcita/CPR News
Students studying in a common area on Front Range Community College's Westminster campus, April 23, 2021.

Colorado community colleges will provide more aid and resources for their older students, better track their college success, and create degree programs leading to well-paying jobs, thanks to joining a national network this month.

The REACH Collaborative, which Colorado joined on Friday, intends to improve college for older students nationwide including in the Colorado Community College System.

The Lumina Foundation funded the collaborative, which stands for Racial Equity for Adult Credentials in Higher Education, and which will provide $975,000 over two years for Colorado to focus on older Black, Hispanic, and Native American students.

Colorado will tap those funds to provide grants to schools to try to increase graduation rates of older students by about two percentage points. The state doesn’t currently track the graduation rate of older students, but leaders have a plan to begin documenting the number. (Chalkbeat is philanthropically supported by The Lumina Foundation.)

Landon Pirius, the college system’s academic and student affairs vice chancellor, said the pandemic exposed the importance of college-level training. Workers with college degrees tended not to lose their jobs as much as did workers without a degree.

Boosting the success of older students will help the economy of their communities, Pirius said.

About 55 percent of state residents has a college degree or certificate. The state aims to increase that portion to two-thirds of adults. Pirius said it won’t meet that goal “if we don’t shift our focus and strengthen our offerings and change how we do things for adults.”

Colorado’s community colleges serve a much older student than do the state’s four-year universities. But the state doesn’t provide as many resources for adults as it does for younger students. Instead, community colleges have had to seek one-time grant programs for adults, with limited duration and impact. The state also doesn’t track older students’ success in college and after graduation.

The state and colleges will seek support from community and statewide organizations. And it will connect to other states in the collaborative: California, Texas, New York, North Carolina, Texas, and Virginia.

The REACH Collaborative will focus on efforts that address the needs and experiences of adult students of color, according to the foundation.

Pirius said the state will look at helping create night and weekend classes and other schedules that better meet the needs of working adults through the collaborative.

“Through this network we can get lessons learned and best practices,” Pirius said. “And we can ask what didn’t work so we don’t go down that road.”

The state will award each of its 13 community colleges small grants to create or improve ways to help older students.

Pueblo Community College President Patricia Erjavec said the school plans to use the grants to provide more individual support for students, such as mental health counseling, tutoring or disability resources, to address significant hurdles in their life.

She also plans to bolster an existing program aimed at getting older former students back to college.

“These students dropped out for a very particular reason,” she said. “Life happens. We’re being sensitive to that, we’re coaching them on how to move forward, overcome those barriers, and get their degree.”

Erjavec said she hopes to build a culture that makes older students feel welcome at school and supported enough to graduate.

“We want to be working in the best interest of every student and every unique need of students,” Erjavec said. “And if we can accomplish that, that’s pretty darn powerful. It will increase retention and completion, and it’ll fill that community skills gap, which is really what we’re all hoping that we can contribute to.”

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