Dr. Africa S. Hands on College Literacy for Nontraditional Prospective Students (Part I)

We are delighted to present the first half of our interview with Dr. Africa S. Hands, a researcher and Professor of Information Science at the University at Buffalo. Through her current IMLS-funded grant Public Library Support of College Literacy in Appalachia (Project CLiA), Dr. Hands has been researching the role of the library in facilitating information access and student success, particularly for nontraditional students. If you haven’t already, be sure to check out our recent College Fluency in Context post about Hands’ scholarship, Project CLiA, and the relevance of her work to our CFCB project. The second half of this interview will be published in the next project update.

Craig Nielsen: Welcome and thank you for joining us, Dr. Hands. I’m so glad you were able to meet us for this conversation for our blog. Your research focuses mostly on nontraditional prospective students—people who are older than the “normal age” when entering college—and you are thinking about programming and resources specifically tailored to their walks of life. What have you found so far in pursuing college literacy for this class of students, as opposed to others?

Africa Hands: When I talk to people about this research, they automatically assume that college is a high school-to-college sort of thing. They’re very much not thinking about nontraditional students: students with some college, or no degree; or students who have stopped out and raised families and want to come back to college. That’s my focus, in part, because I’ve worked with adult learners in higher education settings like admissions and academic advising. It’s mostly been working professionals who were going back to school for a Master’s degree or a Bachelor’s degree. So, really thinking about what their needs were at that moment, and seeing how the Public Library can be a resource for those folks.

Unfortunately, I’m finding that public libraries are not quite the resource I want them to be just yet, because they’re still mostly thinking about high school students. I’m actually seeing some of that in the second phase of my study, which is a survey of library staff. Just glancing at some of the qualitative responses when participants talk about college and who is going to college, I find they very much have high school students in mind, and not the adults in the community.

The first phase of the study was a website content analysis, looking at public libraries in Central Appalachia, which is parts of Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. I did a content analysis to see what on their website is geared towards prospective students. That’s the base level of information: looking at what, even at that introductory  level, is available at the library. Whether library websites have links to any databases that might help with test prep; whether they have links to regional or local colleges and universities; whether they have links to financial aid resources, particularly the official financial aid resources, not just someone’s blog. I am finding that there’s often a mix of links to homegrown websites, and not so much to the more official pages, whether it’s the college website, the financial aid website, or College Board. So, unfortunately, I’m finding that not as much is being done as I would like to be done. I don’t want to say that libraries aren’t doing anything, but there’s definitely room for more to happen.

jean amaral: Do you have a sense of where nontraditional students might go for information about returning to college, since you’re finding that the public libraries don’t necessarily serve that need right now?

AH: That’s something I’m thinking of digging a little bit more deeply into after the survey—talking to recent nontraditional students. There’s a little bit of literature on information barriers for this group of individuals, some of it being related to the discomfort that some people may feel around starting college late in life and wanting to find information online and using online resources. That’s why I started by looking at the library websites. So, I have looked at some of the literature, but there’s not as much on nontraditional students and where they’re looking for this information.

CN: As you mentioned, when it comes to college preparedness, public libraries’ programming is mostly oriented towards high school students. And as a result, a lot of older and nontraditional students might feel a bit of hesitancy to participate. But even if libraries were to target nontraditional prospective students, how would you say your recommendations regarding college literacy differ from other college readiness initiatives?

AH: As far as I can tell from reading about college readiness initiatives, they’re really focused on the skills and knowledge that high school students should possess as they are entering college: writing skills, research skills, critical thinking, problem solving. These are important and great—once you get there. But you have to get there! So that’s one key difference. My research is focused on the information needs and practices to make the informed decision to get to college. As jean talked about, we know that it is a very complicated system. Is it a bursar’s office, or is it a registrar’s office? Is it financial aid, or something else? There is a lot in terms of just getting to the point of entering college that a lot of people need help with.

The college readiness initiatives are more focused on preparing and helping students to succeed once they’re in college, but I want them to make informed decisions to get to college. I define college literacy as possessing the knowledge to assist oneself in making informed decisions about navigating higher education systems and making those college planning decisions. I’m looking at the resources, the information, the services, the programs that are available to prospective students, to help them make that decision. And specifically, I’m looking at public libraries and those who are missed in that college readiness conversation, which is the people who aren’t coming directly from high school, where you’re expected to kind of get some of that foundational information.

CN: What kind of reception have you had from public libraries to the work that you’re doing? As you’re talking about your research aims with them, do they react favorably? Or do they get sort of defensive, like, “Oh, we do this already?”

AH: You know, it’s been an interesting mix. When I talk to people about the project, there’s interest and support and [people who say,] “Yes, this is definitely something we need and can do more about.” But then, as I’m doing the research, I’m finding that the libraries are slow to actively engage this population, or even college planning in the broad sense of things. So, it’s hard to gauge where people are, because the conversations are different from the reality that I’m seeing, at least with the content analysis that I’ve done with the websites—looking for any information, no matter who it’s geared towards. So, like I said, I think there’s still a lot of room for libraries to grow into this space. That’s why I’m excited about the work that jean’s doing. It’s like we’re hitting it from a lot of different angles: public libraries, community college libraries.

I’m still working on reporting out the specific findings from phase one, so that might spark some people to make some changes, at least at the level of what information they’re putting out on their websites. So, I’m hopeful, but there’s still room for libraries to grow. And, you know, some people might think, “Well, that’s yet another population that we now have to serve.” It’s not that I want to burden them, but that I think it also fits within the work that public libraries are already doing. Libraries are top of mind when it comes to early literacy and children’s programming, and also programming for senior citizens and recreational programming. But I want them to get to those people in the middle who are in-between, beyond early literacy but not at the recreational stage yet.

JA: You may be planning something similar to what we’re hoping to do, which is to put information out that says, “Here’s a small thing you can do for college fluency.” Maybe that’s librarian-on-location. A bigger thing is programming for the staff.

I don’t know whether for public libraries if there’s a similar shift to what’s happening in academic. It’s really hard for academic librarians to let go of their academic programming to think of academic needs as actually all of the needs of the student, not just the classroom needs. So, food insecurity, housing insecurity, counseling: all of that is part of an academic need, as it were, even if it’s not in the classroom, and we’re seeing—slowly—academic librarians shift to thinking about, what are those non-curricular, holistic needs and how do we serve them? I’m not sure for public libraries, if there’s something similar. I know public libraries absolutely work with food insecurity and housing insecurity, and there’s the social worker movement, bringing social work into the libraries. But I do wonder, for public libraries, for expanding that idea of college to nontraditional versus just the high school students, whether there’s some shift that needs to happen in thinking?

AH: Yes, I think there does need to be a shift in thinking, and that’s why I wanted to focus specifically on this population. Because when we think about the early days of the pandemic, the people who were laid off or who lost their jobs were those who didn’t have college degrees or formal education. It’s a bigger community issue than someone just wanting to go to college. There’s also the economic piece of it, in terms of having people who are skilled and formally educated, who can then enter the workforce or maybe shift jobs and retool what they’re doing. Some people need a college degree for that work. So, just helping them to think more broadly about what’s going on in their community, who the college student is, and who college is for.

Part II of this interview will be published to this blog in the next update. In the meantime, be sure to check out Dr. Africa S. Hands' personal site to learn more about her incredible work and Project CLiA.

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