Today’s college students have diverse needs. These two schools get it.

Today’s college students come from a wide range of backgrounds and bring an equally diverse set of needs. Many hold full-time jobs, have children, are first-generation learners or come from underrepresented communities. One of the biggest obstacles they face is an educational system where colleges and universities are still designed to mainly to serve traditional students who arrive straight from high school, live on campus and study full time.

Fortunately, more and more institutions are embracing the diverse nature of higher education in America and have developed programs and services that reflect their student populations. To that end, they’re offering flexible class scheduling, tailored financial aid, online options, improved advising, mentoring programs and more.

Flexible and supportive
Rio Salado College, part of the Maricopa Community Colleges system in and around Phoenix, has served a broad range of students since opening in 1978. Its enrollees reflect the population of the surrounding metropolitan area. At least half are students of color, with 20 percent Latino, eight percent African American, five percent Asian and two percent Native American. In addition, 82 percent work at least part-time.

“We need to be flexible,” said Chris Bustamante, president of Rio Salado College. “Often times our students will have barriers they run into.”

Rio Salado’s flexible approach manifests in several ways. With a rolling block system of classes, the college offers 48 potential start dates per year. That’s a boon to students whose lives don’t operate around the traditional semester or quarter schedule. The school also works with more than 30 business partners in the area to provide training programs where students can receive credit while also getting paid. Students even receive credit for prior learning and life experience through work, independent study or community service. “We have a lot of adult learners,” Bustamante said.

For students who are the first in their families to attend school and others who may be unfamiliar with the postsecondary system, Rio Salado provides student success courses. These programs emphasize study skills, time management and lessons for staying on track toward career or academic goals. “These students need to know where they’re going and we want to make sure they’re not wasting their time,” Bustamante said.

Tech tracking and the human touch
Delaware State University, a Historically Black University based in Dover, adds a layer of technology to help keep its students, many of them first-generation college goers, on track. Campus administrators use analytics software to get early warnings on undergraduates who are falling behind or are otherwise at risk. “If they get off the pathway we can put them back on track; we can catch it in time,” said Teresa Hardee, chief operating officer at Delaware State.

Students must also see an advisor three times per semester regardless of their grade performance.

Technology plays an enhancing role throughout the university and provides students with an opportunity to learn in-demand skills. For example, Delaware State runs a developer boot camp for students in the summer, where they learn to build apps for Android smartphones and tablets. Program leaders explain to students that six weeks at the camp could help them get a job that pays $60,000 per year or more.

Yet the fact that technology-enabled courses can be a tough sell shows the pressures that students from low-income backgrounds face. Many must return home for the summer to work to provide additional income for their families. At times, their economic circumstances compel them to sacrifice long-term goals for short-term obligations. “When people try to live, study and give money back to families, it’s really difficult,” Hardee said.

Models for other U.S. campuses
Student demographics at both Rio Salado College and Delaware State University track closely with national statistics on postsecondary enrollment, which show that diversity is now a fact of life on America’s campuses. Some 42 percent of students are non-white, more than half hold full- or part-time jobs and more than 50 percent don’t live on campus, while 40 percent are 25 or older and 28 percent have children.

The challenge for educators, administrators and policymakers is to ensure that policies at institutions like Rio Salado and Delaware State become the norm and not the exception when it comes to serving students from all backgrounds.

Financial aid options need to be increased and diversified to help overcome education gaps. Technology should be a key part of extending postsecondary options to all communities, and class scheduling should reflect the reality that many students face obligations beyond the classroom.

For students, a solid start is essential for long-term completion of their education goals. “Many of these students need help getting started and a strong foundation,” Bustamante said. “Once they’re on their way, they tend to need fewer services.”