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Colleges Need to Be Innovative to Support Diverse Learners

To help more students be successful in college and be prepared for the work world, experts gathered at the 93rd annual meeting of the American Council on Education, said that colleges need to be innovative and rethink the way they serve an increasingly diverse student body.

Here are some ideas floated at a panel to improve college readiness and completion Monday morning in Washington:

Leverage technology to keep students on track
Colleges can use information and new technology to pinpoint when students are having problems in courses and relay that directly to students to help them get the resources they need, said Diana Oblinger, president and CEO of EDUCAUSE, a nonprofit in Washington that promotes the advancement of higher education. Rather than contacting faculty about possible interventions, it is a "breakthrough" to realize it's more effective to get in touch with struggling students directly to improve success, she said.

Connect knowledge to real world
Higher education should be more intentional explaining to students why it is important to achieve certain key competencies, such as the ability to write, calculate numbers, and understand the global community, said Carol Schneider, president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities. Making that connection between what students do on campus and the skills they need to have power in the real world can a motivator for completion, she said.

Improve alignment between high schools and higher ed
Since incoming college students often have deficits in reading and math, there needs to be better alignment of curricula and counseling, suggested Gerardo de los Santos, president and chief executive officer for the League for Innovation in the Community College. There is hope that the Common Core State Standards will revamp what is means to be college ready and encourage conversations between teachers in high school and faculty in college to align expectations.

Transform transfer policies
Experts expressed frustration that students often lose time and money because they are not able to easily transfer from one institution to another, which can be an obstacle that hurts completion rates. Schneider suggested that colleges agree on high-level skills and rally together to remove this barrier.

Provide degree program flexibility
For nontraditional, low-income students, it often takes longer to complete a degree. So, to support this growing population of students, colleges need to create pathways where students can easily step in and out of school and no longer think of it as a failure, suggested Mark Milliron, deputy director or postsecondary improvement for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Students in the future will be "swirling through institutions," rather than progression linearly, said de los Santos. To accommodate these diverse learners, educators should think of more flexible models of delivering services.

Revamp remedial programs
Remedial programs are the "Bermuda Triangle" of higher education and there is a need to innovate, said Milliron. Putting students who have struggled in a structured high school classroom into a formal developmental education classroom at a community college is a "recipe for disaster," he said. A better approach is to offer modules where students accelerate at their own pace and use technology to individualize the instruction, suggested Milliron.

Train faculty
Just as the K-12 sector has focused on teacher quality, so should higher education look at improving the performance of faculty members, suggested Milliron and others on the panel. Many faculty are more focused on their content area and don't learn how to teach, said de los Santos. With the increasingly diverse student populations on campuses, it will be even more important in the future to focus energy on faculty preparation, he said.

Focus on competency
Higher education should think more broadly about what strengths students should have coming into college—rather than looking at a narrow set of academic skills—to be more inclusive and just, said Schneider. She suggested students create an e-portfolio that they can carry from one institution to the next to include not only test scores, but also graded papers and examples of how they have applied their knowledge. "We have to break out of binary silos," said Schneider. "Our future depends on how well we empower everybody, not just some."

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