ERIC Identifier: ED477913
Publication Date: 2003-04-00
Author: Ryan, Edward Francis
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse
for Community Colleges Los Angeles CA.
Counseling Non-Traditional Students at the Community College.
Within ther Community college setting, counseling centers were developed to
help students "find and effectively use the information, skills, insight, and
understanding they need in order to be successful, first and primarily in the
college and secondarily, later in life" (Helfgot, 1995 p. 49). While there has
been some variation in the types of services available, counselors have
historically provided academic advising, career guidance, and personal
counseling (Coll, 1993; Helfgot, 1995). Today the profile of the typical
community college student is quite different than when counseling centers
originated some forty years ago, but the services offered look basically the
same (Cohen and Brawer, 1996). The change in student demographics has caused
many to question whether the counseling models developed in the 1960s still meet
the needs of today's students (Pascarella and Terenzini, 1998; Pineda and Bowes,
This digest addresses this issue, first exploring how the shifting
demographics of community colleges affect the counseling function and then
offering suggestions that counselors and researchers can employ to ensure that
the services provided addresses the needs of today's students.
A CHANGING DEMOGRAPHIC
Since the early 1970s, the student
demographics at community colleges have shifted significantly. As Pineda and
Bowes (1995) note, "older, part time students; full time workers; evening
students; commuter students; and women represent a significant population in
today's community colleges" (p.151). In 1970 for example, women constituted 40%
of students attending community college, whereas they comprised 59% in 1999
(NCES, 2003). Additionally, the enrollment status of students has changed as
part-time students now account for 61% of all those enrolled (NCES, 2003).
Community colleges are becoming more ethnically diverse. Minority students
constituted 19% of those who attended two-year institutions in 1971, and now
account for 33% of the population (NCES, 2003). Finally, the community college
has seen a rise in the number of students who are older (Coley, 2000), first
generation (Phillippe and Valliga, 2000), immigrants (Brilliant, 2000; Do, 1996)
and single parents (Phillippe and Valliga, 2000).
CHALLENGES NON-TRADITIONAL STUDENTS FACE
Given the change
in demographics, there is an increasing concern that the established theories
and practices used in counseling are problematic since they are based on the
experiences of traditional college students (Aragon, 2000; Pascarella and
Terenzini, 1998). Recognizing this possibility, researchers are now exploring
the unique challenges non-traditional students face. For example, scholars have
noted that older students tend to have significant family responsibilities, work
commitments, and off campus obligations that can impede their academic progress
(Durodoye et al, 2000). Additionally, many researchers are examining the manner
in which adults learn. Merriam and Caffarella (1999) argue that adult students
encounter a number of biological, psychological, and sociological changes as
they grow older, all of which can affect learning. Accordingly, the authors make
the argument that those working with adult learners need to be sensitive to
their life experiences.
Researchers have also explored the role of gender in learning. Concerned that
women have been historically marginalized with the academy, Hayes (2000)
examined how the educational environment, and, in particular, faculty
interactions, institutional culture, and the curriculum can affect the manner in
which women learn. She notes that the use of certain textbooks and teaching
styles reinforce gender stereotypes and ultimately affect the success of female
Other studies have examined how cultural values can impede the success of
non-traditional students (Brilliant, 2000; Do, 1996). In a study of first
generation and immigrant students, Do (1996) notes that those who are not from
the mainstream culture may face difficulty adjusting to a new environment.
Specifically, Do argues that students educated in some Asian and Latin American
countries learn in a system that values intuitive and experiential processes
whereas the United States focuses on the development of analytical and linear
modes of thought. Consequently, these immigrant students "encounter difficulties
when confronted with schoolwork that is geared for abilities with which they
have the least experience and proficiency" (p.12). If counselors are unaware of
these differences in learning style, they may misinterpret poor performance as a
lack of ability when it is instead an issue of adjustment to new modes of
ADDRESSING THE COUNSELING NEEDS OF NON-TRADITIONAL
While the aforementioned examples in no way provide a complete
overview of the challenges non-traditional students face, they illustrate the
disconnect that can occur between community college students and their
counselors. Hoping to raise awareness, higher education scholars have argued
that community colleges should employ a number of strategies to better
understand and work with non-traditional students. For example, Pascarella and
Terenzini (1998) argue that the higher education community should conduct
research on the development processes of non-traditional students. Concerned
that we know far too little about the intellectual and social development of
non-traditional students, these authors suggest a national profile of community
college students be developed which can then be used to help form new models of
Other scholars note that such research can also be used to provide training
and workshops for faculty, staff and students. Brilliant (2000), for example,
argues that institutions should provide in-service training for their faculty
and counseling staff so that they can better understand students' needs and
develop action plans to address those needs. Along a similar line of thought, Do
(1996) states that counseling centers should use research to help develop
academic and life skills workshops that are geared toward the needs of
Additionally, some researchers think that community college counselors need
to better understand the perspective of students. Brilliant (2000), for example,
argues that counselors need to spend time with their students, listen to their
stories, and pay particular attention to their life histories. In doing this,
the author believes the counselors will have better insight into the needs of
their students and be able to develop action plans to address those needs.
Similarly, Do (1996) urges community colleges to recruit and hire bilingual and
bicultural counselors as they will be better prepared to serve as role models
ADDRESSING THESE NEEDS WITH LIMITED RESOURCES
counseling needs of non-traditional students has been viewed by some as asking
the community colleges to provide more services in an environment where the
resources are becoming scarce (Durodoye et al, 2000). Recognizing this
challenge, Helfgot (1995) suggests that community colleges invest in technology
to improve the quality and accessibility of counseling. In practical terms, the
author suggests that community colleges create web-based programs that allow
students to enroll for courses, obtain degree audits or transcripts, conduct job
searches, and address basic questions related to academic policy and advising.
While Helfgot does not assume nor want computer-based technology to replace the
counselor, he does believe that such systems will reduce counselor workload,
which will ultimately allow counselors to focus their energies toward more
significant issues facing today's community college students.
From a review of the literature, it becomes clear that there are several
significant challenges facing community college counselors. As noted, counselors
are seeing a new type of student who does not fit the traditional profile of a
college student. Accordingly, counseling centers need to reconceptualize the
strategies, models, and manner in which they provide services so that their
efforts are more in union with the needs of the population being served.
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