A First Step: The Unique Needs of Two Community College Populations

A First Step: The Unique Needs of Two Community College Populations

Marisa Vernon
Columbus State Community College
Cassi Stewart
Columbus State Community College
Lorrie Ritchey
Columbus State Community College

While foundations of student and academic affairs remain similar when professionals move between selective to open-enrollment institutions, perhaps the steepest learning curve is associated with understanding some unique aspects of the student experience. When the doors of an institution are propped open to all, the student body reflects a mosaic of rich backgrounds that challenge college personnel in new and ever-changing ways.

Recently, a colleague was describing to me a moment in which she recognized a gap in knowledge between herself and a coworker who had spent the majority of her career at a selective four-year institution, which highlighted the varied experiences our students face.  The conversation had been centered around a population of students that community college professionals serve on a near daily basis, yet she quickly realized her conversation partner seemed slightly puzzled and was grasping to find common experience. Recognizing the gap, my colleague stopped to provide context to the discussion.

Increasingly, the community college at which I work is challenged to meet the unique student affairs needs of two emerging populations entering our door: students entering college with felonious backgrounds (referred to in this article as restored citizens), and students impacted by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) legislation. Students from both experiences are often faced with extreme barriers even at the application stage, and the barriers do not necessarily disappear once students crack open their first college textbook.

Restored Citizens

As the criminal justice system focuses on rehabilitation and decreasing recidivism, individuals with criminal backgrounds are encouraged to seek sustainable opportunities upon release. Often, conditions of parole require that an individual leaving the prison system seek gainful employment or pursue full-time education, though many will find both paths blocked by numerous barriers. As job opportunities decrease for restored citizens immediately following incarceration, education becomes an attainable next step for many leaving our prison systems.  Likewise, many prison systems have established partnerships with online or local colleges to offer educational opportunities to qualified individuals during incarceration. For many afforded this opportunity while serving sentences, their motivation to learn or build upon earned credits remains high after release.

Community colleges, by their open enrollment nature, provide restored citizens the most accessible path to education and degree attainment. While many could be accepted to selective institutions, barriers related to campus safety concerns, on-campus housing restrictions, and tuition costs prevent some restored citizens from even bothering to apply to traditional four-year institutions. In addition, several students we have seen in our advising office have described the community college campus environment as more accepting of all students’ experiences and diverse backgrounds, when compared to four-year colleges. Whether this difference is true or perceived, a restored citizen is perhaps likely to follow this instinct and seek out the path of least resistance and judgment.

When we call to mind the challenges even the most traditional college students face in order to begin classes (e.g., submitting materials in accordance to enrollment deadlines, applying for financial aid, securing housing, finalizing a schedule), one can immediately begin to speculate how these challenges can be multiplied for the individual with a criminal background. Waiting until after release to apply for financial aid can delay an individual’s ability to enroll, while some may not even realize they are eligible to apply for aid during the end of incarceration. Likewise, the pressure of setting up living arrangements, reviewing parole requirements, and the emotional challenges associated with reestablishing support systems may leave little energy for these individuals to transition to the role of college student.

Even the most open colleges and universities still employ a review process for students who indicate a criminal conviction on their application. While a necessary screening process, these steps can delay the student’s acceptance and decrease motivation.

At the community college where we currently work, an enrollment review team is responsible for meeting with prospective students who have violent felony histories that have been identified as being a risk to the rest of the student population or having particular challenges to assimilating to the college environment. This enrollment review team is housed in the student life department but includes staff from many areas including counseling, public safety, advising services, career services, and student conduct. This team meets weekly with identified prospective students along with a panel of three staff members: a facilitator from student conduct, a representative of the behavioral interventional team, and a member of student services. The goal of this panel is to both determine threat assessment and to help with any obstacles students may encounter once they are admitted. The panel has the opportunity to admit students immediately, to defer admittance to a later date, and/or to provide students with important resources to help make their transition easier.

In 2012-2013, only 7.4% of those interviewed by the college’s enrollment review team had their admission deferred based on the interview. While securing acceptance to the college provides students with access to education, additional challenges generally follow as the student explores career options and opportunities for growth and leadership. These experiences, while commonplace for the traditional college student, present exponential hurdles for restored citizens.

At our institution, departments have specifically identified obstacles for this group of students and have taken steps to provide support for these students in overcoming their challenges. The career services office has developed specific resources for these students including “10 Steps for an Effective Job Search” and a guide to restricted and sensitive occupations for restored citizens. Career Services also keeps a list of community resources that can help facilitate a restored citizen’s transition into the college and work environment. Advising Services has also taken proactive steps by gathering information about majors, such as allied healthcare and education, which often require background checks and will be nearly impossible for a student with a criminal background to pursue. Likewise, Advising Services maintains strong relationships with academic programs that can accommodate those with felony histories. Represented on the enrollment review team, Advising Services also serves as an important connector to support services that promote success such as tutoring services, disability services, mental health counseling, and community resources.

In 2012, a report released by the U.S. Department of Education highlights additional barriers that impact a restored citizen’s ability to gain or complete post-secondary education upon release. While many prison facilities offer education programs through community college partnerships, previously incarcerated individuals may experience issues regarding credit articulation, repeated withdrawals due to relocation within the prison system, and unfamiliarity with current technology. The report also highlights the importance of immediate support upon release to ensure individuals are linked with pathways to complete their education and notes that gaps between prison education experiences and post-release coursework may impact persistence. Other recommendations include aligning prison education programs with current workforce needs, as well as utilizing universally accepted assessments and curriculum whenever possible to ensure applicability after release.

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)

In addition to serving significant numbers of restored citizens, community colleges also regularly provide education pathways to individuals with unique international backgrounds. Within the last year, our college has watched closely as legislation related to undocumented individuals has evolved. In 2012, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security released a process by which undocumented individuals brought to the United States as children may apply for deferred deportation. This status, known as DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) allows individuals to apply for a two-year deferred action window, during which they may pursue employment, job training, or post-secondary education. While qualifications and regulations related to DACA are stringent and do not provide a pathway to citizenship, it is renewable and allows undocumented individuals to pursue a college education. For obvious reasons such as cost, accessibility, and decreased time to degree, community colleges are a likely option for many students in DACA status (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, 2012).

Surprisingly, many young individuals who qualify for DACA realize they are undocumented rather suddenly. Since the United States does not restrict undocumented children from receiving a K-12 education, some individuals brought to this country as young children have been completely integrated into United States schools and may even hold high school diplomas from a United States high school. While applying for college, attempting to fill out federal financial aid paperwork, or pursuing employment, individuals may suddenly become aware of their status as an undocumented individual at risk of deportation. For these students and others, DACA provides a window of opportunity.

Like many community colleges, our institution is quickly responding to the student support needs of this growing population. Providing DACA students access to the opportunities available to them at our community college is inherently tied to the institution’s mission to educate, inspire, and provide students with the opportunity to achieve their goals. In autumn 2013, the college began offering in-state tuition to students in DACA status, who had previously been required to pay out-of-state tuition in order to attend. While individuals in DACA status are generally ineligible for financial aid, this change in tuition structure puts a pathway to education or training within affordable reach.

While some undocumented students eligible for DACA status are reluctant to identify themselves, our college received 80 student applications coded as DACA. Just over half of these students registered and paid in-state tuition. In order to respond to the unique cultural, emotional, and support needs of this population, the college created a DACA resource group composed of staff and faculty from various academic and student service departments. Meeting monthly, the group focuses on policies and best practices related to students in DACA status, as well as efforts that bring awareness to faculty and staff.

This cross-functional team has also created a website for prospective and current DACA students. The website will help bring awareness to the college’s in-state tuition option and also includes information about the enrollment process, scholarships, local resources and community groups. In addition, the DACA resource group is in the process of creating a survey to hopefully identify the unique needs of this student population and draw conclusions about how the college can best serve them.

Similar to the restored citizen population at many community colleges, DACA students will face barriers to their academic goals as well. With many programs requiring background checks, social security numbers, and proof of citizenship, DACA students often find themselves extremely limited in their educational options. While DACA defers action against undocumented individuals for two years, they may apply for renewal and eventually secure United States citizenship.  However, pursuing and completing any program with such restrictions will prove challenging in the given timeframe.


Community colleges are and always have been well positioned to serve students from nearly any imaginable background, ability level, and socioeconomic rung. Open enrollment institutions seem to reflect and magnify the unique situations that exist within our communities and country, and yet provide an accessible step for growth and progress.

Perhaps one of the most fascinating details about working within this setting is the responsiveness to which two-year colleges respond to the world as it knocks on the door.  Regularly, community colleges establish quick and thoughtful changes of course in order to respond to a community need, a workforce niche, or a changing social trend. The work is challenging yet rewarding, and provides a front row seat to watch individuals transform and grow and learn.

In our advising office, our team is surprised daily by students’ stories and the intricate details of their lives. Their paths to education are often winding, filled with barriers to overcome, and yet open to possibility. Often, the motivation of students from the restored citizen and DACA populations, among others, is astounding and focused. These students, in many cases, have climbed emotional, academic, social, and economic mountains to arrive at our doorsteps, and yet our focus as staff, faculty, and administrators should find inspiration in the fact that they chose the path in the first place.

Surely that kind of motivation can be harnessed to move an individual forward, providing we match it with a desire to understand, evolve, and develop as the professionals who support them.

Discussion Questions

  1. From your current vantage point (faculty, staff, administrator, student), what do you believe the top five challenges are for individuals seeking education after incarceration?  For students in DACA status?
  2. Often, individuals seeking DACA status may feel conflicted about reporting personal information about the immigration status of their family.  How might this process impact an individual’s transition to college student?
  3. How can colleges help both restored citizens and DACA students research career options, some of which may be limited to them?
  4. Many formerly incarcerated individuals are drawn to two-year or community college as a first step in their educational paths.  Do you believe that this is the best first step for a restored citizen?  Why or why not?  How might individuals with a criminal background experience their transition to a four-year institution?


Columbus State Community College (n.d.) Deferred action for childhood arrivals. Retrieved from http://www.cscc.edu/admissions/daca

U.S. Department of Education, Office of Vocational and Adult Education. (n.d.). A reentry education model: Supporting education and career advancement for low-skilled individuals in corrections. Washington, D.C., 2012: Tolbert.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security (n.d.) Deferred action for childhood arrivals. Retrieved from http://www.dhs.gov/deferred-action-childhood-arrivals

About the Author

Marisa Vernon serves as the Assistant Director of Advising Services at Columbus State Community College in Columbus, Ohio, where she leads a large team of professional Academic Advisors and coordinates the community college’s mandatory First Year Experience Seminar. Marisa has seven years of higher education administrative experience at open enrollment institutions specializing in two- and four-year degree programs and transfer preparation. Before joining Columbus State Community College, she was the Assistant Director for First Year Experience at Kent State University’s Stark Campus in North Canton, Ohio, and has also worked at the Northeast Ohio Council on Higher Education.

Please e-mail inquiries to Marisa Vernon.


The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.