A decade ago, community college officials focused most of their attention and efforts on students seeking associate's degrees or transfer credit.
Today, officials say they're beginning to see increases in a different kind of student, demanding different types of programs.
Although community colleges always have catered more to adult students than their four-year counterparts, officials say they are placing greater emphasis on recruiting adult students and working to meet their needs.
“It's never been off the radar,” said Frances Hendrix, vice president of academic affairs at Rose State College.
“I think it's more spotlighted now.”
Particularly among returning adult students, Hendrix said. The college is seeing increased interest in programs that allow students to go to work while continuing their education at a four-year school.
For example, she said, students who enroll in the college's paralegal program can go to work in a law firm when they graduate and use that position to pay for law school, eventually becoming attorneys themselves.
The college's cyber security program has become a popular offering for students who are returning to school either to take extra training to make themselves more marketable or to change careers entirely, Hendrix said. Those students often go on to get jobs at nearby Tinker Air Force Base.
According to a recent study, certificates and other credentials that allow students to work while continuing their education are becoming a more important part of the path to a college degree.
The report, “Career and Technical Education: Five Ways that Pay Along the Way to a B.A.,” was released in September by Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce.
According to the report, these so-called middle jobs are important for students who hold postsecondary certificates and are seeking college degrees — particularly at a time when four of five postsecondary students work. About 23 percent of students who earn postsecondary certificates go on to earn at least a two-year college degree, according to the study.
The study calls career and technical education “the missing middle ground in American education and workforce preparation,” noting that, while the United States ranks second in the world in the percentage of its workers who holds bachelor's degrees, it ranks 16th in attainment of degrees and certifications below the bachelor's level.
The report calls for greater public investment in career and technical education programs that integrate high school and postsecondary curriculums with employer-based training.
State, national efforts
Part of the increased attention focused on adult learners in Oklahoma may come from a renewed emphasis on degree completion both in Oklahoma and nationwide, Hendrix said. Gov. Mary Fallin has called for an additional 20,400 degrees and certificates awarded in Oklahoma during the next 12 years.
That goal is a part of Complete College America, a nationwide initiative designed to boost the number of degrees awarded at American institutions annually.
Part of that initiative is an Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education program targeted at adult students with some college credit but no degree. The Reach Higher program provides both on-campus and online course options and flexible course schedules to try to accommodate working adults.
The program targets those with 18 or more credit hours toward an associate degree or 72 or more credit hours toward a bachelor's degree.
Norma Kent, a spokeswoman for the American Association of Community Colleges, said the increased focus on adult learners has been a trend nationwide for some time.
Community colleges always have served adult learners, she said, but they generally see greater interest from returning adults during economic declines. During recessions, people who are in industries that are declining often go back to school to pursue a different career. Others go back to learn new skills to make themselves more marketable.
In particular, she said, students are returning for training in health-related fields. Community colleges tend to be more responsive to the immediate demands of local industry, she said, so they're in a better position to respond to shortages of health care workers.
Kent said she doesn't expect the demand for health care training to go away anytime soon. As the population continues to age, she said, community colleges will continue working to keep pace with demand for allied health workers.
“Look at all the baby boomers you've got moving into their years when they need more care,” she said. “I think people see those (jobs) as good security.”