NOCO’s college population is changing rapidly.
Here’s how local institutions are meeting its needs.

by Kristin Owens

Tiffany Breckenridge has her hands full. In addition to working and attending Front Range Community College full-time, the 29-year-old single parent has two small daughters to care for. She’s earning enough money to make ends meet, but her goal is to have a career in health care – not just a job.

Now, nearly a decade after she finished high school, a nursing degree is within Breckenridge’s grasp. Between working and parenting, she usually hasn’t had the luxury of attending college full-time. She’s chipped away, a class or two at a time, accumulating credits whenever she had enough room in her budget and schedule. If all goes well, she’ll complete her associate’s degree in nursing this year, enabling her to earn a nursing license. And she’ll be halfway to a bachelor’s degree, which she can continue to work on via evening and online classes.

Breckenridge’s journey is a far cry from what many of us remember as the typical undergraduate experience – four years of full-time coursework, kegs on the quad, no debt upon graduation, and an instant transition to a fabulous job. Ah, the good old days. Easy. Simple.

In truth, it was never that simple for everybody. There always were exceptions. And today, the exceptions are becoming the rule. Astronomical tuition increases (we could write tomes about this horrific trend), mountainous student loans and an uncertain job market are changing the way students approach college – and the way colleges approach students.

For decades, enrollment and admissions offices have categorized students as either “traditional” (full-time students between 18 and 22 years old) or “nontraditional” (older students, part-timers, transfers and so forth). Back in the day, traditional students made up the vast majority of every graduating class. But in the last decade, a shift has occurred. So-called nontraditional students now constitute a majority of the nation’s college population.

You could think of them as the New Traditionals. They’re older, more diverse and more focused than the typical 20-year-old, and less interested in partying, dating and other stereotypical college escapades. Rather than compartmentalizing their education within a four-year boundary, they’re treating it as part of a broader, more holistic transition to adulthood – one that integrates college with work, family, community and a spirit of lifelong learning.

New Traditional students in many ways are changing the institutions that serve them. And the new educational model that’s emerging reflects the evolution of NOCO’s economy and demographics.

Concurrent enrollment courses save time and money for students such as Anna Hubbard. | Photo by Becky Morris/Macaya Photography

At age 15, Joy Tran-Dyrenforth already has accumulated 16 college credits. | Photo by Becky Morris/Macaya Photography

As Simple as 2+2

Let’s begin with community colleges, the traditional home of the nontraditional student. For many years, institutions such as Aims Community College and Front Range Community College have provided an entry point for people across the educational spectrum. In addition to serving newly minted high-school graduates, they also have catered to part-time students, working adults, military veterans, single parents, retirees, transfer students, online learners, immigrants and more.

Michael Gulliksen, director of advising at Front Range Community College, doesn’t even use labels such as “traditional” and “nontraditional.” “We tend to refer to students as ‘our students,’ a more holistic approach,” he says. A diverse student population is nothing new for FRCC and other two-year institutions. By definition, “community” colleges provide a snapshot of the community they serve. They’ve acquired the flexibility to accommodate everyone, wherever they fall on their educational path, instead of forcing individuals into rigid categories.

To meet the needs of diverse populations, community colleges have emphasized faculty-student interaction, small class sizes, hands-on advising and other forms of institutional engagement. Those benefits, in turn, have become increasingly attractive to students who might otherwise be inclined toward a university. Students who seek a four-year degree are, with growing frequency, starting out at community colleges to sidestep hassles, get more faculty attention and optimize costs. Why pay for sports programs when you just need MATH 125 or ENG 101?

“Community colleges have shifted from providing access to guiding students on a pathway to success,” says Front Range Community College Vice President Jean Runyon. It’s not just about attracting students, but making sure they’re productive and meeting their goals in a timely fashion.

And then there’s the money. (Sorry, it was inevitable.) Costs at public universities (including room and board) have increased 23 percent over the last decade, while average household incomes are only up by 13 percent over the same period. This alone makes community colleges a bargain, especially if students can eliminate housing costs by living at home. (That fun craft room or basement bar will have to wait.)

Colorado’s community college coursework is fully articulated with the state’s public four-year universities, so the credits transfer seamlessly. Students can save a bundle by completing freshman and sophomore coursework at an affordable community college, then transferring to a four-year school for their junior and senior years. This “2+2” formula allows people to earn four-year university degrees while paying only two years of university tuition. There’s no downside.

“Community colleges are more likely to serve lower-income students,” reads the Colorado Department of Higher Education 2019 Legislative Report. But they’re also serving a growing cadre of students from middle-class and even well-to-do families who simply don’t want to start adulthood with a six-figure debt burden.

The El Centro program at Colorado State University helped Yesica Ramirez make a smooth transition to college life. | Photo by Rebecca Adams/Colorado Born Images

Changing Faces

While all colleges try to expand students’ worldviews, it helps when campus demographics match those of the real world. Enter the New Traditionals.

According to the CDHE’s 2019 Legislative Report, college participation among Asian, African-American, Hispanic and multiracial students has steadily increased in the past five years, while white students make up a decreasing percentage of the campus population. At Front Range Community College, students of color account for 30 percent of overall enrollment, an increase of almost 25 percent in the last five years. At Aims Community College, according to admissions director Jody Markheim, the Latinx population is now at 30 percent, compared to 12 percent 10 years ago and mirroring the change in Weld County’s demographics. To assist in recruitment, Aims is offering admission brochures, tours and other recruiting materials in Spanish.

A similar demographic shift is taking place at Colorado State University. Heather Daniels, CSU director of admissions, says while overall enrollments remain steady, their ethnically diverse student population has more than doubled over the last 10 years – 117 percent growth, to be precise. Students of color made up 16 percent of CSU’s incoming freshman class in 2009. By 2018, that figure had risen to 27 percent.

Yesica Ramirez, the first in her family to attend college, says she chose CSU because it felt down-to-earth and welcoming. She arrived through the Bridge Program, an eight-week summer intensive that allows students to get a head start earning credits and navigating a big campus. By the time fall semester came, she knew her way around and had made a ton of friends. She also credits El Centro, a center for Latinx students, which helped her feel comfortable and strengthen connections with others. “It’s a place to eat lunch, study – it feels like home,” she says.

Ramirez also participates in Triunfo, a mentoring program in which she and other El Centro students volunteer in Poudre Valley elementary schools. Participants offer one-on-one tutoring and interaction, while providing role models for younger kids who may not have college graduates in their own family. Through these programs and others, CSU hopes to ease transition into higher education for more underrepresented groups.

The New Traditionals also are diversifying the age spectrum on college campuses. Front Range Community College’s Larimer campus has seen a surge of students aged 17 and younger. (Yes, you read that right.) This population has nearly tripled (from 8 to 22 percent) in recent years, thanks to a booming concurrent enrollment program that allows high school students to enroll in college-level courses, earning high school and college credits simultaneously. Unlike Advanced Placement classes, which place students on an accelerated college track, concurrent enrollment enables students to satisfy actual graduation requirements – and do so without paying a dime in tuition.

Greeley high schoolers Anna Hubbard and Joy Tran-Dyrenforth are taking advantage of Aims Community College’s Early College Academy program. As 15-year-old high school sophomores, they’ve each already completed 16 college credits. By the time they enter college, they may already have completed between one-third and one-half of their bachelor’s degrees. Tran-Dyrenforth aspires to become a photographer, and she knows a four-year business degree will help. The ECA program will allow her to complete her education more quickly and affordably.

“You need to be a hard worker and put in a lot of effort,” says Hubbard, one of seven siblings. Both she and Tran-Dyrenforth hope the ECA will ease their transition to college. They’re learning college-level material in their own high school building, working in small classes with familiar teachers and getting a level of one-on-one support that’s hard to find at a larger institution.

Tiffany Breckenridge credits the Single-Parent Program at Front Range Community College with helping her to earn a degree in nursing. | Photo by Rebecca Adams/Colorado Born Images

Facing Forward

Military veterans are another rising demographic in the New Traditionals. Veterans usually arrive on campus shortly after their military service ends, and many of them feel disoriented or even overwhelmed in their new environment. FRCC veteran services advisor Christen Mandrack reminds them, “Being a new student anywhere is overwhelming.”

The same principle holds for virtually all New Traditionals, who are entering a system primarily designed to serve a population that’s more privileged than they are. As a more diverse student population has emerged, so have additional needs. Higher-education institutions also are trying to expand their student life resources, particularly since healthy, happy students are more likely to graduate.

Aims Community College recently kicked off a Center for Diversity and Inclusion, a resource more often found on a four-year campus. A Student Ambassador program has been wildly successful with mentoring and acclimating entering students to college life and all its responsibilities. Also new is Ardy’s Pantry, where food-insecure students can pick up items twice a week; a societal issue requiring assistance from colleges.

FRCC has a Veteran’s Center and is looking into a new peer mentorship program to help ease the transition for students coming out of the military. And Tiffany Breckenridge says the school’s Single-Parent Program has been enormously helpful. From sponsoring holiday parties to providing backpacks for her kids, Breckenridge says the campus understands her challenges and offers a huge support system. Whether it’s academic advising or just listening, for many students, these seemingly small things can make the difference between success and failure.

The truth is, all college students in every category – traditional, nontraditional, whatever you want to call them – face more competing priorities than ever. It’s no longer just about which frat party to attend on Friday night. Today’s students have packed schedules that make it hard to stay focused on education, even when they believe that a degree will improve their life.

Flexible scheduling is important for everyone, which makes online courses increasingly attractive. Online enrollments at Aims Community College have more than doubled in the past 10 years. Students of every age and ethnicity are focused on certificates that get them into the workplace quickly, focused on career stability and what it looks like in the long run, Margheim says.

CSU’s Daniels says goal achievement may be more difficult for older students, especially those who are changing careers, working full-time, and/or supporting a family while attending classes.

As higher education moves forward, perhaps the labels of “traditional” and “nontraditional” students need to be ditched. Because what is tradition? A semblance of the past? Today’s students are focused on the future. And NOCO’s colleges and universities are right there with them.