Back to School

Community colleges meet needs of non-traditional students

It is August and the countdown has begun. All across Illinois, students are participating in the traditional back-to-school preparations: new clothes, shopping for supplies and returning to the habit of getting up early. In just a few weeks, they will be attending elementary schools, middle schools, high schools and for some, colleges and universities. While the attendees at many of the local schools fit age stereotypes, a growing number of those in higher education — especially community colleges — are non-traditional students.

In fact, Illinois community colleges are not only catering to older students, they are designing programs and courses specifically for non-traditional students and the results are significant both for the individual students and for the rural areas served by many of these educational institutions. The colleges welcome both the students and their roles as engines for economic development.

“Our students’ average age is 27,” says Travis Henson, director of Kaskaskia College in Centralia. Henson points out that while Kaskaskia, like many other community colleges, continues to serve recent high school graduates looking for associate’s degrees or who plan to transfer to four-year institutions, non-traditional students are a growing segment of the student population.

“Sometimes they are people who have lost their jobs and are looking for a new career path or those looking to upgrade their skills for a promotion,” he says. “Walk these halls and you’ll see the full gamut of people from our area.”

William Tammone, president of Illinois Central College in East Peoria, points to nearly two dozen degree and certificate programs his college offers to help students prepare for their first employment, second (or even third or later) careers. These programs range from highway construction to dental hygiene, information technology to welding and nursing to employer-specific programs such as (in ICC’s case) training specifically for future employment with construction machinery manufacturer Caterpillar.

“We have students from age 16 to 89,” reports Curt Oldfield, president of Spoon River College in Canton. “Sure, we have the traditional pattern with students who are interested in going on to obtain baccalaureate degrees, but we also have a number of six-week courses for people that want to go to work immediately. Those classes are very enticing to non-traditional students.”

Oldfield says these programs not only serve the students, but also area businesses specifically and the school’s region as a whole.

“We’ve surveyed the businesses in our region to see what they need us to be doing,” he points out. “There’s nobody else doing this sort of workforce training that has the connections with business and industry along with the credibility we have.”

He says these programs are not new, adding that Spoon River College has offered classes in diesel mechanization since the early 1960s. Today, offerings include programs to prepare pharmacy technicians and cutting-edge career fields such as pharmacy technology as well as the long-standing diesel coursework.

“One of our goals is to provide business with a well-trained workforce they can rely on; one that will keep their businesses in business. It’s all about helping the economy in our rural area grow and develop.”

While not the primary focus, community colleges are taking a leading role in economic development and their impact is significant. A 2014 study by Northern Illinois University for the Illinois Community College Board reported that Illinois’ 48 community colleges have a total economic impact to the state of $3.1 billion and 50,973 jobs.

“In a lot of ways, community colleges have become economic engines for our areas,” Kaskaskia’s Henson adds. “We’re very responsive and we’re able to develop programs and skill training that companies need right away. That’s having a direct impact. Businesses tell us what they need and we go about developing the training and education to custom fit the need.”

Tammone explains that not only does the training provided at community colleges make local businesses and industry more productive, the availability of this training and a skilled workforce helps to attract new employers into the area.

“Community colleges are vital partners for economic growth of local communities in the region,” Karen Hunter Anderson, executive director of the Illinois Community College Board said in a January press release about the economic impact study. “Investing in Illinois community colleges pays considerable dividends to Illinois’ students, employers, and local communities.”

Jake Rendleman of Carterville serves on both the Illinois Community College Board and the John A. Logan College board of trustees. He says the economic role of the colleges is significant.

“These institutions have an impact on everyone,” he says. “It’s not just in general sense, but can be a significant impact on an individual’s life. With non-traditional students or single parents or people needing a GED, it allows people to keep going and be successful.”

Bob Walter of Spoon River College’s Commercial Driver Training program says more than 60 percent of the students who he teaches to drive tractor-trailer vehicles are non-traditional students. He explains that many are dislocated workers, out of a job when a factory closed or manufacturing moved to another location.

“I guess you could say that we are a second chance for them,” he explains. “And for each of them, the difference is like night and day. Any of these retraining programs at community colleges are game-changers. They are grass root programs that are very beneficial.”

Not all of the students are working toward associate’s degrees. Many are simply learning new skills to improve their own skill sets (and perhaps earn a promotion). Others are earning certificates in very specific areas of expertise such as automotive transmissions, computer networking or a trade.

“I think that’s another reason community colleges are at the forefront of training, you don’t have to get a degree, you can earn a certificate,” Henson explains. “It enhances someone’s employability and shows they have a specific set of skills.”

Henson says some certificates can be earned in just a few weeks while others require about a year of study. Often certificates are “stackable,” meaning that students can gain a broad set of expertise within a single discipline or gain experiences in a variety of fields.

Many of the community colleges serve as sites for federally-funded displaced worker programs, designed to aid adults who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own.

“We give assistance to them in finding new employment. That help may include resume creation, career search help and developing interviewing skills,” says John Stradin of Rockford’s Workforce Connection, which works closely with Rock Valley College to train workers. “If someone has worked somewhere for 20 years and then suddenly they find themselves out of work, often they don’t know how to even begin going about finding a new job. We’re helping them get what they need to get employed.”

He says that a Georgetown University study shows that more than two-thirds of all new jobs will require some training beyond high school.

“Much of that training will come through the community colleges,” he says. “They are a key to retraining our workforce. They are at the forefront of providing the training that the businesses need.”

Rendleman says Carterville’s John A. Logan College trains or re-trains nearly 15,000 people a year. “Some of it may be just a weekend occupational safety training on site, while others are developing skills for a new career in nursing, heating and air, or truck driving. Sometimes at graduation we’ll see non-traditional students who came back to school to do something else or we’ll see people who suddenly found themselves out of the workforce after years and are started on a new path.”

Not all of the training, Henson says, is technical in nature. “We’ve worked with some companies who told us there was a lack of ‘soft’ skills, so we put in programs to address that.” He says Kaskaskia now offers students help in developing career-enhancing skills and habits — things like the importance of showing up to work on time, customer service training and communications skills. “These are all things that we might not think about being needed in the workforce, but they are things that the companies are telling us they want.”

Oldfield says that Illinois community colleges will continue to meet the needs of both students and area businesses in the future.

“We have careers that are developing right now that we don’t even know about yet, but one of the beauties of community colleges is that we can shift gears and turn out graduates or certificate holders in a pretty quick time frame.

“People have come to rely on community colleges and know that if there is a need, the college in their area will step up and fill that need,” he adds. “Maybe we are taken for granted, but that just means our communities know that they can rely on their community college.”

Photos courtesy of Illinois Central College

The importance of experience

It happens every time you fill out a job application. There is that question asking about experience. But how do you get experience if this is your first job? For many, the answer is an internship.

Internships give students an opportunity to gain professional experience related to their major and ultimately find a job after graduation. These short-term opportunities help bridge that gap between college and professional employment, and can even make it easier to transition into a career. Nationally, seven out of 10 internships result in a full-time job offer after graduation.

According to Springfield ITT Technical Institute Director Jason Thoron, there are a number of benefits of gaining student professional experience. These include:

• Builds students’ confidence in his/her own skills and abilities.

• Provides students opportunities to apply their skills and knowledge in the workplace.

• Allows students opportunities to add valuable hands-on experience to their resumes.

• Enables networking and visibility with potential employers.

And, you don’t have to wait until you’re an upperclassman to pursue an internship. At, it is suggested that you “do a few internships throughout college and use the first ones to get a feel for what career you’d like to pursue and the later ones to build your experience.”

Some internships are paid, while others are not. Paid internships may have an hourly or weekly rate, or possibly a stipend (a set amount paid one time during the internship). You need to figure out what is feasible for you, but don’t dismiss an unpaid internship. The experience can be invaluable.

There is also the possibility of receiving college credit by serving an internship. You should talk to your academic advisor or the career development office at your school to see what opportunities may be available. The career development office is also a good place to ask questions about compiling a professional looking intern resume and how best to present your skills/experience. They can help you to avoid the common pitfalls of not including enough or, in some cases, too much information.

Most internships will last the duration of a quarter or semester, but the length is flexible. You just have to be sure to fulfill all of the school requirements. Some opportunities may also be available during the summer or school breaks.

Check with your school today to see what opportunities await.


The Association of Illinois Electric Cooperatives (AIEC) was recently recognized by ITT Technical Institute’s Springfield campus for its participation in the Institute’s Student Professional Experience Program. The program allows students the opportunity to work at the AIEC and gain valuable knowledge in the IT industry. Pictured is Darlene Sim, ITT Director of Career Services and Dan Gerard, AIEC IT Manager.