How LI higher learning institutions are meeting the needs of working students

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By Dan Sears

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Long Island’s colleges and universities are taking bold steps to meet working students where they are: offering more flexible scheduling, hybrid and online learning, continuing education, and certificate programs for students who require special skills for high-paying jobs without having to obtain a degree.

Many of the institutions here began this effort long before COVID-19 required them to get creative to keep classes and programs running during shutdowns. And many of them say they are continuing to innovate as student needs evolve—including some that will roll out now for the spring semester.

These new models for college education were just “tiny seeds” at institutions such as Adelphi University as far back as the 1970s.

“Basically, the flexibility was: Everybody works during the daytime. So we’ll offer classes at night, or we’ll offer classes in the evening,” said Andy Atzert, dean of Adelphi’s College of Professional and Continuing Studies in Garden City.

Now, he said, “life has gotten even more complex.” And so the evolution continues–with high stakes at play.

“The actions a school takes–how it engages and supports its students–can have a big influence on how many students graduate,” consulting firm McKinsey & Co. said in a report last year. It noted 141 bachelor’s-granting schools with at least 4,000 students improved completion rates by at least 10 percent in the past decade–a time when COVID-19 rattled education.

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It offers one key recommendation for institutions to improve student outcomes in the U.S.: “Prioritize the 52.5 million potential adult learners without college degrees through creative support structures, more-flexible class schedules, and tailored instructional modalities.”

At institutions of higher learning in Nassau and Suffolk counties, flexibility includes “asynchronous” classes permitting students to attend live in-person or online, or during another part of the day via video and web-based study. Scholarships, experiential opportunities, specialized certificates instead of degrees and a broader set of accommodations for on-campus activities are getting students over the line to a degree with work-life balance intact.

And that’s become even more important during the post-pandemic period when hybrid–or even more flexible approaches–have now become essential higher-education practices.

“We were already looking at flexible learning opportunities for adult learners, for even our traditional learners that might be in clinical experiences, (or) student teaching, internships, experiential learning opportunities…We were seeing that need,” said Amy Gaimaro, dean of innovative delivery methods at Molloy University in Rockville Centre.

“We started the office of blended and online learning back in 2015, and we’ve grown continuously throughout the years.” Gaimaro added. “[Therefore], we had a very seamless transition during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Molloy has more than 3,500 students enrolled in at least one hybrid or remote course this coming spring semester; of those, 461 are fully online.

Laura Joseph, senior vice president and provost at Farmingdale State College, said: “Currently, about 15 percent of our course offerings are fully online, and an additional 3 percent are in a hybrid format. We’re looking to use this hybrid model more aggressively. It allows students, instead of coming to campus twice a week for a class, to come just once a week, maintaining that important engagement with the faculty member.”

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Farmingdale, like other SUNY institutions, will pilot a new “hyflex” (hybrid, flexible) option for students starting with its spring semester, Joseph noted. “Hyflex allows a course to be offered in three modalities simultaneously. For instance, in an English course, students could opt to attend in person, participate via live stream for a virtual presence, or not attend the session and fulfill requirements asynchronously online.”

Students can determine for themselves, week to week, which they do.

Dean of Hofstra University’s Frank G. Zarb School of Business, Janet Lenaghan, said the graduate courses provided by her institution engage students who have, in many cases, been working for 20 years and may be seeking a graduate degree to expand their opportunities, knowledge or skills.

“We have a number of medical doctors right now who, if they’re in the ER, they’re not working a nine-to-five kind of shift. They’re engaging whatever it may be that works for them,” Lenaghan said. “And then they come at the end probably through their 11-month program five times.” On a Saturday, she said, “we get them together” and their study will also include work like consulting for a nonprofit or travel abroad for a practical experience in the area of their study.

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But not all working students require or want a degree. And Atzert said some Adelphi students who work have transitioned to hybrid or work-at-home for the job, and many of those are looking for opportunities to be on-site.

“They can come to campus, the library, and to our lounge,” Atzert said. “The library this term will be opening up a family-friendly center where people can come and bring their kids. Even though they’re in an online program, they may like the idea of coming to the campus to do some of the work, and to work out at the gym.”

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