Education beyond high school remains one of the surest pathways to social mobility, yet many students face personal, academic, financial, and other barriers that prevent them from completing their programs and earning their degrees and credentials—particularly at community colleges. In a new report from the University of Chicago, researchers find that holistic support programs that address barriers from a number of angles are the most successful and cost-effective methods to improve student outcomes.
The authors—Marianne Bertrand, Kelly Hallberg, Kenny Hofmeister, Brittany Morgan, and Emma Shirey—examine the outcomes of students enrolled in One Million Degrees (OMD), a Chicago-based non-profit organization that provides community college students with financial, academic, personal, and professional support. They found that enrolling in the program led to a 23% to 27% increase in college enrollment, a 35% increase in full-time enrollment, a 35% increase in persistence to the spring term, and a 47% increase in full-time persistence.
“Community colleges have the potential to be powerful vehicles for social mobility in the United States,” the authors wrote. “As open access institutions with tuition rates that are a fraction of the cost of four-year public and private institutions, community colleges are a particularly attractive option for low-income and first-generation college students. However, for too many students, community colleges are falling short of this promise.”
Particularly for low-income and first-generation students, there are many potential roadblocks that can get in the way of enrolling in or completing college. Despite lower tuition, the authors wrote, financial barriers remain for community college students. Research has shown that community college students tend to be older, more likely to work part-time or full-time, and more likely to have dependents. Likewise, in recent years studies have revealed a problem with housing and food insecurity among college students.
“As such, just one unexpected expense can have long-term effects on students’ likelihood of completing a degree, with financial instability cited as the most common reason students disengage from school,” the report said.
Personal and professional barriers, such as not having a role model to help them navigate applying to and transitioning through college, or not having connections in the workforce, can cause some students to stumble.
“While it is common for first-year students to have feelings of apprehension about finding a new community and adjusting to increased autonomy, low-income students are more likely to internalize the common challenges that come with the transition to college, worrying about whether they truly belong,” the authors wrote.
As part of the OMD program, students received a small, annual performance-based stipend of up to $1,000 to help cover financial needs that might surface during the year, and meet with a program coordinator at least once a month. The program also provides tutors, and coaches or local professionals who serve as volunteer mentors. The program is unique in that it is operated by a third-party non-profit organization, rather than by the community college itself, making it potentially more easily scalable and more cost-effective.
The study found that the results were more significant for those who applied to the program while still in high school, as opposed to those who applied while already enrolled in community college. Those results came as a surprise to the OMD team, the report said, as they viewed the program as a college support and persistence program, rather than a college access program. The effects, however, “led the team to rethink what the active ingredients of the program are and when the program treatment truly begins,” the authors wrote.
“By serving as a trusted bridge and linkage for students during a period of potential disengagement, OMD is providing resources to help ensure that students enroll in college at all,” the report said. They also noted that while high school applicants were less likely to take up the offer to enroll in the OMD program than their peers currently enrolled in college, they outperformed their control group peers, which provided “suggestive evidence for how limited resources could be targeted to lead to the largest impact on student outcomes.”
“Like any comprehensive program, early evidence of the effectiveness of the OMD program has raised questions about which program component or components are most critical to success,” the report said. “However, the growing body of evidence of comprehensive program effectiveness, relative to the more meager evidence of the effectiveness of programs that just address one barrier students face, suggests that the comprehensive nature of these programs may be critical.”
Publication Date: 5/16/2019