First Report on Amarillo College Poverty Initiative Yields Positive Results, Cultural Shift

By Joelle Fredman, NASFAA Staff Reporter

Ten years ago, a mid-sized community college located in the Texas Panhandle sought to help its students struggling with poverty overcome obstacles to completing degrees. With the release of the first in-depth analysis of these efforts this week, Amarillo College (AC) received confirmation that it has done that and more.  

The report, authored by Sara Goldrick-Rab and Clare Cady of the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, took the first “intensive, evidence-based examination” of AC’s No Excuses Poverty Initiative, launched a decade ago to promote college attainment and completion, and found that it had raised completion rates from 26 percent in 2012 to 45 percent in 2017, a 73 percent jump. But it doesn't end there — the authors found that through this initiative AC has shifted the focus on campus to supporting students’ needs both inside and outside the classroom, creating “a culture of caring” at the school.

“In particular, Amarillo College stands out for undertaking an intentional cultural shift to focus on students’ basic needs, committing to ongoing staff education on the challenges facing impoverished students, and striving to fully incorporate lessons learned into institutional programs and policies,” the authors wrote.

The authors argued that one difficulty that many colleges face when it comes to addressing dwindling completion rates is that they often cater to students’ academic needs, and do not focus enough on students “‘nonacademic’ influences,” which can serve as major barriers to their success. They wrote that AC, however, has successfully recognized that “securing its students’ basic needs must be the first priority.”   

And while other colleges have adopted programs to address students’ nonacademic needs, such as by partnering with food banks and offering free transportation to school, the authors argue that they are limited because they do not engage the entire institution. AC’s No Excuses Poverty Initiative, however, according to the authors, has engaged the entire school and faculty across campus to address poverty on campus.

AC’s initiative aims to help students complete college through a combination of emergency  aid funds, an extremely active and accessible resource center, and a faculty and university staff that have been made aware of the issues of poverty their students face and are motivated to help.

The authors wrote that unlike emergency aid at many institutions, which can be difficult to administer immediately due to administrative and policy obstacles, AC’s No Excuses fund is “administered with little fuss and appears to achieve its goal of helping students without burdening them in the process.” Two employees are tasked with disbursing funds and deciding which students will receive how much in aid; there is no formal application, and students do not need to “prove” their economic statuses to receive the help they need.

The aid is supplemented by the college’s “Advocacy and Research Center,” which is strategically located on the college’s main campus to be both easy to find and portrayed as the center of the school’s mission to its students, the authors wrote. At the center, which the authors describe as emanating “a physical sense of support,” students can connect with counselors and legal aid advisors, as well as access a food pantry and clothing closet and learn about the dozens of other support services the Texas community offers. Felicity Swann, the scholarship coordinator in AC’s financial aid office, said she works closely with the staff at the center to help maximize the aid a student can recieve.

“We end up seeing students from all walks of life everyday, [and ask ourselves,] ‘how can we help this person to reach their goal?’” Swann said.

Additionally, the authors noted that they found that many students are aware of the center and its services, which they found to be an obstacle at other colleges when it comes to information about social programs offered both by schools and the surrounding community.

“We’re trying to let the community know ‘we are your community college and we're here to help anyone,’” Swann said.

Further, the authors wrote that life at AC is “informed by No Excuses” both inside and out of the classroom. Faculty had the opportunity to learn about poverty on their campus through a poverty forum the school offered in 2012, and were trained to recognize the signs that a student is struggling. Since, faculty has taken it upon themselves to help students through efforts such as checking in with students when they miss class and picking up students whose cars broke down. Additionally, the school offers a program for staff who do not have the opportunity to interact daily with students to serve as mentors for students, known as the Coaches and Champions Mentoring Program.

“As a community college we get to really know our students and develop an actual relationship with them, and as a smaller school we can really offer students a lot more hands-on help,” Swann, who served as a mentor, said. “Many students have issues in college simply because of their own personal pride, and we just want to say, ‘look, here is a person you can call about anything.’”

The authors applauded the college’s president, Russell Lowery-Hart, for his work in ensuring that this initiative is integrated throughout the college, but stressed that the true success of the program lies in the passion of the school community.

“While President Lowery-Hart is a clear instigator of the No Excuses Poverty Initiative on his campus, he is not the only leader. Faculty members, staff, community activists, and board members play key roles in shaping and reshaping what the initiative looks like and how it affects students,” they wrote.


Publication Date: 6/14/2018

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