Several people work at a bank of computers in a classroom. In the front of the frame is an older man and and a younger man in discussion.

Research team sets out to find keys to college success for older students

Phyllis Cummins and two doctoral associates have a discussion at a conference table in a library.
Dr. Phyllis Cummins (center), a senior research scholar in the Scripps Gerontology Center at Miami University, is leading a study on the college success of students between the ages of 40 and 64.

Employers can no longer afford to discriminate against older workers, and the reason might surprise you. It’s not lawsuits; it’s demographics.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), labor force participation by Americans age 55 and older grew at a faster rate between 1994 and 2014 than it did for younger Americans. The BLS projects that between 2014 and 2024, labor force participation by those 55 and older will grow at a rate of 2.1%, while participation by those 25-54 will grow much more slowly, at a rate of just 0.4%, and participation by those 20-24 will actually decline by 0.8%. Given these statistics, it’s clear that employers’ success in the coming years will depend on older workers.

Far from taking this demographic reality for granted, however, more and more workers between the ages of 40 and 64 are working to stay competitive in the job market by enrolling at the nation’s community colleges. And community colleges – vulnerable to the same demographic pressures affecting employers – are happy to have them.

“There are a lot of reasons to want to try and facilitate continued labor force participation by this age group,” says Phyllis Cummins, a senior research scholar in the Scripps Gerontology Center at Miami University.

The problem, she says, is that not much is known about what contributes to college success for older students. To help solve that problem, Cummins and her co-principal investigator, Peter Bahr, an associate professor in the University of Michigan’s School of Education, along with the rest of their team, will analyze data collected by the Ohio Department of Higher Education and the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services. They will contextualize this data by listening to focus groups of students and faculty at three Ohio community colleges: Clark State Community College, Rio Grande Community College, and Cuyahoga County Community College. Finally, they will round out the picture by interviewing key informants at all of Ohio’s community colleges.

In addition to Cummins and Bahr, other members of the team are Kathy McGrew, a senior research scholar in the Scripps Gerontology Center, Scott Brown, an associate professor in Miami’s Department of Sociology & Gerontology, Mike Hughes, manager of Miami’s Statistical Consulting Center, and Jing Zhang, an associate professor in Miami’s Department of Statistics. The team’s work is supported by a $1.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES).

“We’re especially interested in looking at the kinds of programs older students enroll in,” says Cummins. “We suspect that it’s going to be more short-term certificate programs and credentials other than an associate’s degree. A lot of older students might not want to spend two full years in school. They might just want to sharpen up their skills so they can get a promotion or get a job.”

Cummins hopes her team will be able to identify patterns that suggest successful approaches to educating older students. That could eventually lead to an IES development and innovation grant, which would allow the team to test specific initiatives to see whether implementing them on a broader scale will positively affect outcomes for older students. Because her research is just getting started, Cummins doesn’t know exactly what those initiatives will be, but she says they could include things like offering more evening classes, or expanding options for accelerated learning.

Even before they get to that point, though, Cummins hopes to influence the marketing and policies affecting older students by sharing her team’s findings with community college officials as well as state and federal policymakers. She points to community college websites as an example.

“Are the websites’ text and pictures conducive to encouraging enrollment by older students? Are they portraying just young, 18- to 20-year-olds?” asks Cummins.

Cummins says the answers to those questions matter because it’s as important for older students to see models of their college success as it is for members of other traditionally underrepresented groups. And the success of older students in college matters because the future of our economy depends on it.


This post was updated November 1, 2016 to correct typographical errors.

Written by Heather Beattey Johnston, Associate Director & Information Coordinator, Office for the Advancement of Research & Scholarship, Miami University.

Photo of Phyllis Cummins by Kim Logsdon, Scripps Gerontology Center, Miami University. Classroom image by the Knight Foundation via Wikimedia Commons, used under Creative Commons license.

Myaamia Center faculty affiliates study effect of self-identity on college success

A group of about 20 students sits in chairs in a circle that takes up the whole room. Twine criss-crosses the empty center of the circle, as some students hang onto a piece of it. In the foreground, a man in a red plaid shirt, whose back is the the camera, holds a ball of twine up in the air with his right hand.
Myaamia Center director Daryl Baldwin (bottom left, in red plaid shirt) leads Miami Indian Heritage class participants in a community web exercise. Researchers Dr. Kate Rousmaniere and Dr. Susan Mosley Howard have found the Heritage class is a key to Miami Tribe students’ success at Miami University.

According to Kate Rousmaniere, educational historians and educational psychologists don’t tend to share much common ground.

“We come to our research with very different approaches. Historians tend to look at social and cultural influences, while psychologists tend to focus on the individual,” says Rousmaniere, a professor in Miami University’s Department of Educational Leadership.

That makes Rousmaniere, who characterizes herself as a “qualitative person” and Susan Mosley-Howard, a professor in the Department of Educational Psychology and self-described “quantitative person,” unlikely collaborators.

Despite being colleagues in the University’s College of Education, Health, & Society (where Mosley-Howard is currently the interim dean), the two had never collaborated before becoming faculty affiliates of the Myaamia Center, an interdisciplinary research unit dedicated to the preservation of Myaamia language and culture.

The Myaamia Center itself grew out of an unconventional partnership, this one between the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma and Miami University, an institution that occupies land the Native tribe was required to cede to the government in 1795, prior to the Tribe’s forced removal west of the Mississippi.

Today, the Tribe describes its relationship with the University as “thriving and mutually enriching,” and the University is home to the aforementioned Myaamia Center. (“Myaamia” is the Native word from which the English name “Miami” is derived.)

In addition, there are a number of Miami Tribe members enrolled at Miami University, thanks in part to the Miami Indian Heritage Award, which waives tuition for qualified Myaamia students. Rousmaniere and Mosley-Howard are interested in the factors that affect retention and the collegiate experience for these students. Among the pair’s initial findings are that in contrast to the low – below 20% on average – federally-reported graduation rates of Native Americans from most non-tribal colleges, the graduation rate of Myaamia students from Miami University is much higher – 75% in 2012. They attribute much of this success to a series of one-credit-hour courses Miami Indian Heritage Award recipients are required to take each semester for the majority of their tenure at the University.

Taught by Myaamia Center staff, including director Daryl Baldwin and assistant director George Ironstrack, these courses cover ecological perspectives and history of the Miami Tribe, Miami Tribe language and culture, and contemporary issues of American Indian tribes.

Rousmaniere and Mosley-Howard interview each Myaamia student twice the student’s first year and annually after that. As a result, says Mosley-Howard, “we’re able to evaluate the impact of this curriculum, not just in terms of student learning outcomes, but also in terms of helping them make sense of who they are.”

Rousmaniere and Mosley-Howard say the literature in the field shows the issue of self-identity is key to the college success of Native students globally, not just on the U.S. mainland, but also in Hawaii, New Zealand, and other societies.

“Even though we can’t say it’s a direct causal relationship,” says Mosley-Howard, “there’s evidence that students who are exposed to their cultural context – whatever it is – have more positive outcomes.”

Rousmaniere says that this requires understanding that goes deeper than a superficial recognition of ancestry. “The Heritage Award students obviously identify as Myaamia, but they don’t always have an understanding of how that has impacted their own lives,” says Rousmaniere. “The Myaamia Center staff, through these classes, help the students figure that out.”

The Myaamia Center staff and classes also help Tribal students deal with stereotyping and other negative experiences. “Even though these students are at a university that takes great pride in a relationship with a Native American tribe, it’s still a microcosm of the world, so of course things happen here that are not respectful,” says Mosley-Howard. She and Rousmaniere have found that the support provided by the Myaamia Center helps students cope with these challenges.

This is one element the researchers will be paying especially close attention to as they continue their longitudinal study. That’s because the University will soon begin seeing students who have participated in the Miami Tribe’s Eewansaapita Summer Educational Experience, a language and culture program for 10- to 16-year-olds that began in 2005.

“I suspect that the Eewansaapita students will come in with a better sense of what it means to be Myaamia,” says Mosley-Howard, “and it will be interesting to see not only the differences between how those students and previous students view themselves, but also whether that has an effect on how they navigate the views of others.”

While the effect the Eewansaapita experience may have had on incoming students remains to be seen, what is immediately evident is that Rousmaniere and Mosley-Howard are committed to working together to tell the full story of Myaamia student success.

“Our disciplines are quite oppositional theoretically,” says Rousmaniere. “But in practice,” continues Mosley-Howard, “we found these points of intersection, and realized it was going to work quite well, and it has.”

Written by Heather Beattey Johnston, Associate Director & Information Coordinator, Office for the Advancement of Research & Scholarship, Miami University.

Miami Indian Heritage class photo and photo of Kate Rousmaniere presenting at 2014 Myaamiaki Conference by Andrew Strack, Myaamia Center, Miami University.