Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Learners Who Break the Mold

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Learners Who Break the Mold

Article excerpt

Learners Who Break the Mold

I am currently the chief academic officer at a public technical college that is the post-secondary arm of our state's largest school district. Our students come from over 100 countries and speak 76 languages. Many of our students have had interrupted formal education due to factors such as family commitments, the need to work, incarceration or moving internationally due to refugee status.

Dr. Karen Gross, the author of Breakaway Learners: Strategies for Post-Secondary Success with At-Risk Students, would say that I work with breakaway learners, who are non-traditional and often marginalized students whom our K-20 system wasn't designed to support. What I see at my school and what is increasingly becoming the norm throughout higher education is that non-traditional students are here and most post-secondary institutions aren't equipped to support them or meet them where they are.

In the spring of 2017, postsecondary enrollment nationwide decreased 1.5 percent from the previous year. The demographics of students entering postsecondary programs are also changing. From the fall of 1976 to the fall of 2014, the percentage of students who are Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander, Black and American Indian/Alaskan Native have increased, and the percentage of White students fell from 84 percent to 58 percent. National trends forecast that minority high school students will become the majority by 2030. States in the Northeast and the Midwest are losing high school graduates, and, in Southern and Western states, the number of Hispanic students is rising.

What does this mean for postsecondary institutions? Are our institutions of higher education prepared to support the racial and ethnic diversity and boost student success?

Gross says that monumental shifts are necessary in our country's educational systems and calls for a different kind of engagement as schools try to adapt. Her book offers a concrete approach in addressing systemic and institutional inequities and in focusing on student success. Drawing on her own experiences as president of Southern Vermont College, which is a majority Pell-eligible student serving institution, as well as her own experiences as a breakaway learner, Gross provides a unique perspective on the experiences of these students as they move through the education system.

Gross coined the term "breakaway learners" to move away from more common terms, "vulnerable" and "at-risk," which don't adequately address these students' strengths. Gross describes breakaway learners as students from both high and low socioeconomic status backgrounds, who have faced innumerable barriers to entering post-secondary systems of learning, including inadequate K-12 educations, dysfunctional or absent families and chronic stress and trauma. Gross asserts that the current education system is not prepared to recognize and embrace the experiences and creative problem-solving abilities that breakaway learners possess. …

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