Over the past few years, as foundations and the government have placed more emphasis on student success, community colleges have been pushed to invigorate their focus on enrollment and completion rates. This is a positive thing. However, because of the steady depletion of state and federal funds, this focus on rates has been paired with an intense attention on cost-cutting.
In this environment, among the first things to get cut are the services — counseling, advising, professional development, curriculum development or student orientation — that are not perceived as adding direct value to generating enrollment numbers. However, these are the very services that help students complete a degree or a certificate.
Rather than cutting costs, we should be focusing on how we can dedicate our limited resources to provide the best possible supports for students. We must decide: Is it better to serve fewer students but provide the full supports needed to help those students reach success, or is it better to serve many and hope that they are able to get to the end without as many supports?
Most colleges have to spread resources thin, because state and federal funding is designed to serve a certain number of students. We see the results of this method in our nationwide completion rates: Graduation rates are far lower for low-income students and students of color, who often arrive at college with more barriers to success and require more in-depth supports to reach their goals.
In Washington state, we decided to take a deeper dive into what factors affect success for low-income students. Building on previous research from the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges and the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College, we worked with the Forecasting and Research Division of the Washington Office of Financial Management to look specifically at students in WorkFirst, Washington’s welfare program. All students in the study were attending college in 2012–13, were seeking a degree or certificate and had since left the college.
What we found was, in many ways, predictable: Wages and employment were higher for those who completed college. Looking out to three quarters postcollege, completers made 36 percent more than those who did not complete. However — and most interestingly — we also found that students who did not complete had at least 10 percent more barriers to completion while in college, such as having to work outside of school, having a family to support, or lacking quality child care or transportation. Since we were able to include information on barriers in this new study, we were able to strengthen our case for the need for critical supportive services.
So when it comes to completion and student success, given the limited resources our community colleges have at our disposal, isn’t it time we advocate to funders the need to back these critical supports? We may serve fewer students, but if we could work with state partners to invest in providing better support systems to stabilize low-income students — structured advising, 12–36 months of preapproved child care, housing and solid transportation options — we could help them reach their goal of a degree or certificate. We would certainly see far better results in completion rates and in postcollege success.
The ironic thing is that, in the long run, it may also cost less to invest deeply in stabilizing students who need it most rather than investing widely, sparsely and repeatedly in students who will not make it to completion.