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Helping Students Find Success in Community College

A new report finds adding supports for low-income students at community colleges can increase enrollment rates and retention levels.

community college student

Photo: Chicago Photo Press

When students have more support at community colleges, it can make a demonstrable difference in their continuing education efforts, according to a recent report from the University of Chicago Poverty Lab. The study evaluates the effectiveness of One Million Degrees, a nonprofit in the Chicago area that supports local community college students financially, academically, personally and professionally from enrollment to graduation.

Enrollment in the fall term was 16.6 percent higher for OMD students compared to the control group, who would have a taken a spot in the program if offered. Full-time persistence rates were 4.5 percent higher for those offered a spot in the OMD program, which represents a 16 percent increase over the control group mean.

The study used a control group of students who applied to the program but were not accepted. A total of 4,274 students applied for the program in the fall of 2016 and 2017, and 2,175 were offered a place in the program during that time period.

"We know that community college is substantially less expensive than a four-year degree but we also know that financial challenges are a real barrier for students," said Kelly Hallberg, scientific director of the Poverty Lab and one of the study's principal investigators. "About 60 percent of students who drop out of community college report that a financial need is part of that."

OMD provides performance-based stipends to students to address their financial needs, and scholars can also apply for up to $250 in enrichment grants to offset expenses for academic or professional needs in the collegiate environment. The program also supports students academically by providing a program coordinator to discuss their academic plans and progress, as well as tutors for students who are earning less than a C grade in any course. Students are also paired with local professionals who volunteer to mentor students.

Hallberg said she was surprised by the results of the study, which showed that students who were selected in the OMD program during their senior year of high school were more likely to enroll in a community college in the Chicago area. "OMD thinks of itself as a college success program more than a college access program," said Hallberg. "Now, the program is starting to think of itself as both a college access and success provider, which is different than what we initially anticipated."

This report is a working paper that presents early findings of the study. Future work will focus on whether the scholars ultimately graduate at a higher rate than the control group and whether they transfer to a four-year institution at a higher rate, in addition to employment outcomes.

"We are also interested in digging into the service utilization on campus of these students," said Hallberg. "We want to look to see if they are taking up academic advising more than the students in the control group and whether they are taking more advantage of the health, social and emotional supports that are on campus."

The Poverty Lab is looking to support a program with the City Colleges of Chicago to build a version of the OMD model that could be rolled out for a larger number of students across the campuses. The model would be similar to the City of New York's Accelerated Study in Associate Programs, which helps students earn associate degrees within three years through financial, academic and personal supports.

The full findings of the study can be found here.

About the Author

Sara Friedman is a reporter/producer for Campus Technology, THE Journal and STEAM Universe covering education policy and a wide range of other public-sector IT topics.

Friedman is a graduate of Ithaca College, where she studied journalism, politics and international communications.

Friedman can be contacted at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @SaraEFriedman.

Click here for previous articles by Friedman.

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