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Community colleges have long been considered a good tool to help low-income Americans get an education that will boost future earnings, but they have been plagued by a persistence problem: 42% of first-time community college students drop out. But a new study by researchers from Notre Dame and University of Maryland brings us some very good news about how community colleges can more effectively help their students complete their degrees, and might even hold some lessons for how to approach poverty-fighting more broadly.
Catholic Charities of Fort Worth — the enterprising nonprofit under the direction of the tireless Heather Reynolds — designed a program called “Stay the Course,” which aims to address the stresses that might interfere with someone pursuing an associate’s degree. By providing case managers to help deal with the personal and academic obstacles that might cause students to drop out, and offering emergency financial assistance should the need arise, Stay the Course banks on a combination of human and financial support to help people earn degrees and make their way out of poverty.
This model has been tried before, with some success: A similar program called ASAP at City University of New York has demonstrated promising results after providing a host of financial and personal resources for CUNY students; but at a cost of about $6,600 per student per year, it could be prohibitively expensive.
The recent results out of Stay the Course are encouraging. After six semesters of Stay the Course implementation, students who were randomly selected to be part of the Stay the Course trial group were about 15% more likely to earn their associate’s degree than those not in the program. Stay the Course participants also remained active in their education at twice the rate of those receiving none of the program’s benefits. All this at a cost of about $1,880 per student, per year.
What’s more interesting still is that a third group, which received emergency financial assistance but no meetings with case managers, performed no better than the group that received neither financial nor personal assistance. The human element of support — another person encouraging and supporting discouraged students — proved far more important than support through financial means.
That is the difference between transactional and transformational support. Though much of our approach toward fighting poverty involves providing money, it is important to realize that human capital can play a bigger role than financial capital. Money helps people when they also have hope in their path forward, a sense of support from other people who care, and a sense of encouraged purpose in pursuing their goals. This all speaks to the role that civil society must play in fighting poverty — a reminder that our families, communities, and houses of worship are spheres for mutual support and encouragement, forms of welfare that government payment cannot provide.