News Column

Hispanic Adults Offered Pathway to Higher Education

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Ameritas College, an innovative venture aimed at Hispanic adults, is offering a new pathway to higher education with the potential to increase degree-completion rates for this underserved population. If the concept succeeds, it could provide a much-needed boost to closing the achievement gap that threatens the country's economic future.

Officials of Brandman University, a nonprofit private institution in California that developed and launched the new college, have put together curricula and support systems to help Latino adults accelerate their studies toward an associate or bachelor's degree. Ameritas blends online and inperson instruction to serve busy Latinos who are balancing time and money concerns while also dealing with family and work commitments.

"With only 7 percent of Hispanics ages 25 and older in California with a bachelor's college degree, it is clear our current system is not meeting their higher education needs," said Gary Brahm, chancellor of Brandman University. "We recognize Latino adults value their time with their families, closely watch their budgets and understand the need and benefit of having a college degree - that is why everything we do and provide has these values in mind and responds to their needs."

Ameritas College has opened campuses in the Southern California area including Ontario, Palm Desert, Victorville and Moreno Valley. Students can earn bachelor's degrees in business administration, criminal justice and psychology, as well as an Associate of Arts degree in general education. The structure requires students to meet for a three-hour class on campus one evening per week and dien complete and additional 2.5 hours of online instruction. All faculty members are bilingual, but most of the instruction is in English. There is year-round enrollment with the first class having started in August 2012.

For students who need to build language skills, Ameritas offers Latino working adults the chance to meet two objectives at one time: earn a degree and master college-level English. In providing this option, Ameritas joins a handful of colleges that are reaching out to offer dual-language degree programs to the Hispanic community. Ameritas has hired bilingual enrollment advisors who work with students to assist them with academic goals, program options and educational financing. If it is successful in graduating more adult Latinos, Ameritas might serve as a model for the entire sector.

"True innovation is rare, especially in higher education,'' said Bralmi. "That is why what we are doing at Ameritas College is so important."

The college has raised its profile by garnering support among Hispanic educators and attracting individuals such as Sara Martinez Tucker, former under secretary for the U.S. Department of Education, to serve as chair of its educational services board. She has been championing the concept by touting the new venture as a way to help working Hispanic adults break the cycle of undereducation and gain the preparation to effectively compete in a multicultural workforce.

"We are making a college degree accessible and opening the doors of opportunity and progress to all Hispanic adults," Martinez Tucker said. "Whether it is a working adult looking to advance his career or an employer looking to develop and strengthen her workforce, Ameritas College brings a viable educational option to our rapidly growing Hispanic community."

Martinez Tucker believes this is a win-win combination for both Latinos and California.

"There is an economic benefit to the state to give priority to our students. Unless enrollment and graduation rates improve substantially, California's economic demand will come short of one million college graduates by 2025," she said. "Ameritas College hopes to address this educational disparity by providing Latinos with an accessible, high-quality and affordable option to earning a college degree and contribute to California's economic future."

Tuition at Ameritas is below most private universities. The current cost is $360 per credit at the associate level and $500 per credit for the bachelor's degree level as compared to the University of Southern California (ISC), which charges more than $1,400 per credit. However, it is higher than the state's two- and four-year public colleges. The Los Angeles Community College District charges $46 per credit.

Michelle Hernandez was one of the first group of students to enroll at Ameritas. Her profile is typical of individuals the college hopes to serve. Hernandez did not go to college after high school; instead she worked for 10 years while also raising a young daughter. When her father spotted an ad for Ameritas in the local paper, Hernandez decided to check it out.

"I walked in and met with a counselor, was approved for financial aid and signed up for classes," she said. "Everyone was very supportive."

That is exactly the reaction administrators such as Dr. Carmen Lamboy-Naughton, dean and the college's chief academic officer, want to hear. She helped create the new academic model for Ameritas that is based on research and feedback from Latino adult focus groups. Ameritas staff members are now promoting the college through media outlets and by going out to Hispanic community groups, which have responded positively.

"We use a very grass-roots approach to recruiting," said Lamboy-Naughton. "We work with community leaders because they are role models for our students, We want to build credibility and trust, winch sometimes means students hear about Ameritas from local leaders who understand that this is a good thing."

Ameritas administrators also acknowledge the important role Hispanic families play in the decision to attend college.

"When prospective students come in to the office to learn about Ameritas, they often bring their children and spouses," said LamboyNaughton. "It is a commitment the family needs to understand."

During the preliminary consultation, advisors work with the student to develop an educational plan so it is clear what level of time commitment and work load is involved and how long it will take to earn a degree. Students can take nine courses per year (six eight-week courses plus three 16-week courses) over a 48-week session. They can earn an associate degree in two years, and bachelor's degree in four and a half years, which in both cases is faster than the national average.

The college has enrolled its initial cohort of 60 students as part of the first-year cycle. Ameritas tries to keep students who start together as a cohort because they can support each other and help build a sense of community, says Lamboy-Naughton. She says aspects of the program have undergone some "tweaking" based on responses from students about what works for them.

In addition to developing the curriculum, one of Lamboy-Naughton's biggest responsibilities was interviewing and hiring the faculty. Faculty members are part-time and non-tenured, just as they are at Brandman University. Many have backgrounds that are similar to students at Ameritas.

"We have had no problem finding faculty who are well-prepared bilingual specialists," she said. "Not only do they have the commitment to our students, hut they also are role models."

Enzo Caminotti is one of the adjunct faculty members who teach at Ameritas. He is the operations manager for Converse (a division of Nike) in Ontario and saw the opportunity to teach as a chance to give back to the community and help others reach their goal. Caminotti said he also identifies with the type of student at Ameritas. As a young boy, his family moved to New York from Puerto Rico, and although they struggled financially, he eventually went to college, thanks to the "never-ending support" he received from his mother. Like his current students, Caminotti worked hard to achieve his dreams. He believes that Ameritas College's bilingual model is one dial can help motivate studente and encourage them to participate more fully in the learning process.

"We use Spanish and English exercises in the classroom and in the online platform," he said. "These exercises help the students work on both languages while also developing other skills, such as creating presentations, using a computer, communication and research, just to name a few. Every course marries content and language in such a way that students find themselves learning the content, acquiring professional skills and enhancing both their Spanish and English at the same time."

In trying to boost graduation and retention rates. Ameritas is relying on faculty such as Caminotti and the support of the college's own retention and tracking measures that have been put into place. Those measures involve a combination of human and technological resources.

"It starts when we assign each student a 'success specialist' who walks them through enrollment and financial aid," said Lamboy-Naughton. "Then we add technology support in which students can bring their iPads and devices and make sure they are set up properly. We show than how to contact an online tutor or specialist that will help them with writing assignments.

"We help students navigate everything and anything they need. We are a community that is meant to help."

First-time students also must take the pathway program, which consists of a student orientation, including an introduction to technology, and a success course covering time management, study tips and stress. To help with retention, the college developed an early warning system that alerts the student success specialist of potential issues before they become a problem. For example, if a student falls behind or is absent, his/her faculty member will contact the success specialist.

Ameritas has set high goals and is aiming for a completion rate that is greater than that of public colleges, said Lamboy-Naughton. She cites the success of Brandman University, which has a 68 percent six-year graduation rate for bachelor's degree-seeking students. Ameritas would like to equal or exceed that percentage.

The Hispanic higher education community and other groups are watching and hoping Ameritas can produce results. The concept was given some financial support when it received a $250,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Educause, through the Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC) initiative. The grant lauded the college for its innovative mission to provide Hispanic students the opportunity to earn associate and bachelor's degrees through dual-language academic instruction.

The college will use the funds to extend its Blended Dual Language English Immersion (DLEI) program into a 100 percent online program that will further expand access to Hispanic adults in need of higher education. Using Brandman University's Instructional Design for Engaged Adult Learning, Ameritas College has already redesigned courses that integrate DLEI instruction.

As described in college brochures, DLEI is unlike other models of bilingual instruction, because it has functional bilingualism for all its students as a goal. Discipline-specific instruction to support vocabulary and concept development is incorporated in both languages. The instructional framework maintains equal focus on college-level content and language learning, without sacrificing program learning. Lamboy-Naughton says they are aware that students who enroll for the totally online program will need additional support.

"When this 100 percent online program is up and running, we want to make sure our students have both the skills and the social environment they need to complete the program," she said. "We don't want them to feel isolated just because they are distance learners."

Officials at Ameritas acknowledge that they have a great challenge ahead of them; however, they are confident and optimistic about bringing a viable educational option to the rapidly growing Hispanic community.

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