Northern Pennsylvania Regional College Caters to the Non-traditional Student

As the non-traditional student population continues to grow, a new college in northern Pennsylvania took a risk and opened during the pandemic to provide a unique higher education experience.

By: Tavleen Tarrant
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In January 2020, just before the Covid-19 pandemic reached the shores of the United States, the Northern Pennsylvania Regional College (NPRC) officially opened as an independent college. Its mission? To provide affordable and accessible post-secondary education to the residents of northern Pennsylvania. According to their website, NPRC’s identity is based upon serving communities in northern Pennsylvania such as recent graduates, high school/college non-completers, first-generation students and returning adults.

When one thinks about the traditional college student, the image of wide-eyed, 18-year-old freshmen living in a cramped dorm room is ingrained in the popular imagination. That image is changing. According to a 2015 study done by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), 74% of undergraduates in 2011-2012 were considered non-traditional students, making them the majority of college students in the United States.

Non-traditional students, also known as adult learners, are defined by the following characteristics: having a dependent and being a caregiver, being independent financially, delaying higher education matriculation, not holding a traditional high school diploma, being employed full-time and attending school part-time. As the population of non-traditional students grows, some colleges have started expanding their repertoire by offering online courses catering to these students.

Other colleges, such as Western Governors University (WGU) and Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), are fully remote universities that specifically cater to this demographic. Then, there are some that are brick-and-mortar colleges geared specifically toward non-traditional students. NPRC is one of these colleges that have found its niche: the non-traditional student population that wants to learn in-person and not through remote, online offerings. 

Volt spoke to NPRC’s President Susan Renee Snelick about developing a new college catered toward non-traditional students, operating during the pandemic and addressing the challenges of being a brand new college in a niche market. 

Unique Model An Asset 

Despite opening during the start of the pandemic, Snelick said the institution was “well-poised to respond to the pandemic because our model is one that is not online, but is hybrid.” 

According to Snelick, instructors are inside classrooms, and students are across classrooms in 21 different locations.

“Because we used technology as a delivery model, remote learning was very easy.  We just needed to deploy laptops and hotspots to students with not very good internet,” said Snelick. 

Although the college’s primary focus is non-traditional students, Snelick said the institution is trying to attract traditional college students as well. The mission of the college is to bring access to students who typically wouldn’t engage in post-secondary education. Being a community college, NPRC can introduce higher education to non-traditional students and show them that they can be successful. 

NPRC is classified as a two-year community college that offers associate degrees and a workforce development program. As claimed by Snelick, NPRC offers five associate degrees and notes that the top two degrees are business administration and early childhood education. Unlike other universities catering to non-traditional students, the NPRC does not operate as a fully online facility, differentiating itself by offering a “live interactive education.” 

“We have four full-time faculty who are the champions of those degrees, but we live by our adjunct faculty who work in our communities. It’s a benefit for our students because they’re getting an education and real-world experience from adjunct faculty. They can bring in real-world examples and connect the classroom to the workplace in a way that makes sense and is applicable to students,” said Snelick. 

As the non-traditional student balances childcare, work and transportation barriers, NPRC is trying to make education as easy and accessible for these students by offering evening and morning classes to fit the needs of adult learners.

Currently, the college is in the process of receiving accreditation and, according to Snelick, will receive a decision in March. In the meantime, Snelick is proud of the college and the community it has built. NPRC has 500 enrolled students and operates in 22 different locations, but the college is looking to expand geographically to serve more underserved communities in northern Pennsylvania, such as Tioga County. Snelick noted that the northern Pennsylvania region has been a traditionally underserved region that hasn’t had the benefit of a community college in its communities. 

“Making it [education] more accessible for folks is what we’re all about,” Snelick said proudly. 

According to Data USA, 18.2% of the population in northeast Pennsylvania live below the poverty line. This number is greater than the national average of 12.8%. Meanwhile, the census bureau estimates that only 20.7% of the population of Tioga County has obtained a bachelor’s degree or higher. In Warren County, another of NPRC’s locations, 19.5% of the population has a bachelor’s degree or higher.

 

New Institution Challenges

Although NPRC plans to continue to expand and reach more non-traditional students across northern Pennsylvania, leaders in higher education raise viable concerns and questions over the challenges for a small, new college to operate in a niche market. 

Size 

Rick Sluder is the vice provost for student success and dean of university for Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU). He said that large, established online universities, such as WGU and SNHU, that cater toward non-traditional students similar to NPRC already have thousands of students. 

“These mega-institutions have a large advantage and there are now other institutes trying to get adults to enroll, so these are the challenges,” Sluder said in reference to the challenges NPRC may face. 

Snelick said she’s not worried about online mega-institutes hampering NPRC’s efforts in enrolling non-traditional students. 

“We’re not trying to compete with the bigger online schools because we offer that live interactive education,” said Snelick. “We have student engagement specialists who work with students to make sure all their resources are available. We do a lot of case management and hand-holding that I’m not sure you get with online universities.”

Further, Snelick noted that students also benefit from the support they receive from other students in the class present with them. 

“We don’t set ourselves up to compete with those online schools because we are different. We need people to know who we are and that we are not online,” said Snelick. 

Marketing

“Our major challenge is that our communities don’t necessarily understand who we are since we don’t have ‘community college’ in our name and because we never had a community college available in our footprint so they’re not aware of the education opportunities community colleges bring,” said Snelick, who admitted getting people to know who and what NPRC is has been a challenge. 

Sluder said that colleges, such as NPRC, need to make students aware that these programs exist. He said that SNHU, for example, spends a large sum on sophisticated marketing campaigns that help non-traditional students gain an awareness of their programs.

Unlike traditional students who have the benefit of guidance counselors to help make them aware of college programs, non-traditional students have to rely on their own research to find college programs. Thus, making students aware of the college is highly dependent on advertising and marketing campaigns across social media and television. 

Demographic Needs 

April Query is the assistant vice president of college access and community outreach for the College Foundation of North Carolina (CFNC), a nonprofit chapter of North Carolina State Education that provides free resources across the state for college and career planning for all students. 

Query said that the biggest challenge for NPRC is contending with the unique challenges that adult learners have, such as a need to study online more, childcare concerns and finances. 

Charles Keene is the associate dean for the undergraduate program at the Tippie College of Business at the University of Iowa. He was also a non-traditional student. Like Query, Keene stated that NPRC and other colleges catering to non-traditional students will be challenged to meet the varied needs of adult learners. 

 “Although it may seem like a homogenous group, the variety of needs and challenges are going to be individualistic,” said Keene. “With 18-year-olds, it’s all a similar life range but at 21 years onwards, it’s such a range of life experiences it’s going to be a challenge I think.” 

Snelick said that, as non-traditional students balance childcare, work and transportation barriers, NPRC is trying to make education easy and accessible for these students. To that end, NPRC has offered evening classes to fit the needs of adult learners and has now expanded to include morning classes. Maintaining flexibility, Snelick said, is the key to engaging the non-traditional student population.  

Fees and Tuition

As for finances, Snelick said NPRC’s board approved waiving fees for students. 

“We have a moratorium toward fees and our tuition remains flat, so there are no increases, and while you can get your associates for under 10k, there’s also tuition aid,” added Snelick. “Seventy-five percent of students don’t pay full tuition. We offer book scholarships and free resources so that there isn’t a huge expense for students for books.” 

Snelick said that the institution has also kept costs down in terms of operating the college, which keeps the college affordable for more students. 

“We partner with school districts to rent space from them and utilize underutilized buildings so that way we are not inviting in infrastructure which keeps costs low,” Snelick added. 

For other colleges hoping to endeavor into the non-traditional student market, Snelick offered this piece of advice, “I think it’s mainly about affordability, so keeping your costs low, accessibility, and being available when that population can fit it. Also, keeping class sizes low, and offering support. It’s the hand holding and making sure they have that contact to post them in the right direction and help them.”

Tavleen Tarrant

Tavleen Tarrant

Reporter

Tavleen Tarrant is a graduate of the Masters in Journalism program at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where she specialized in documentary filmmaking. She is a freelance journalist who writes about gender, the global economy, migration, labor rights, politics and everything in between. She holds a Bachelor of Arts and Social Sciences in International Relations with first-class honors from the University of New South Wales and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and International Relations from the University of Queensland.

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