Arkansas Program Helps Low-Income Parents Earn Degrees

By Ellen Ullman

A statewide initiative focuses on getting low-income studentparents the support they need to earn higher education degrees and certificates.

Since the Arkansas Career Pathways Initiative (CPI) started, in 2006, more than 30,000 low-income parents in Arkansas have received personalized assistance in attaining associate degrees and technical certificates. Data show that this support has significantly increased educational outcomes.

The program is administered through the state’s higher education department and is funded through the federal welfare program. To qualify for the program, students must be custodial parents who are eligible for public assistance and have incomes at or below 250 percent of the federal poverty level.

“The success of this program is one of my favorite subjects,” says Collin Callaway, chief operations officer for the Arkansas Community Colleges. “By partnering together, the departments of higher education and workforce services have transformed students’ lives.”

How CPI works

An administrative staff of three at the Arkansas Department of Higher Education manages the program across 25 of the state’s public community colleges and universities. Seventeen of the participating institutions are two-year institutions. Each campus has one CPI director and one or two case managers.

The case managers do more than help students enroll in classes — they become personally invested in their students’ success. “They are problem solvers, cheerleaders, career coaches, confidants — everything needed for a student who doesn’t have other support,” Callaway says.

In addition to emotional support, case managers provide financial-aid information, career services and admissions support. Callaway says that a typical student would have to go to six different offices to obtain the information and support that a CPI case manager provides.

The average CPI student is a single mother in her early 30s, usually a first-time college student; many start by getting their GED or taking remedial classes. Every student’s pathway is individualized, based on the assessments case managers conduct when they meet their students. They discuss the student’s goals and interests and develop a plan to get from A to Z, outlining all the steps along the way.

The federal welfare program funding pays for tuition and fees as well as books, transportation, child care, and other supplies related to the degree or certificate.

Positive outcomes

A recent study quantifies CPI’s success:

  • Between 2006 and 2013, 52 percent of CPI students obtained at least one higher education certificate or degree, compared with 24 percent of Arkansas community college students who did not participate in CPI.
  • Of CPI students who enrolled in 2008, 62 percent completed a degree by 2013. Nationally, 39 percent of students enrolled at two-year institutions in 2008 completed a degree by 2014.

“Students in the program start to see themselves in a different light,” Callaway says. “They may not have had achievements in the past, but whether they earn a GED or complete a certificate program, they start to think of themselves as successful and gain the confidence to continue.”

CPI students credit program staff as the key to their success, Callaway says. “They tell us all the time, ‘No one has ever believed in me like this; my case manager kept me going. When my daughter was sick and I missed a week of classes, my case manager called to check up on me.’”

Future plans related to CPI include measuring the program’s impact on participants’ children. “We often hear that children see their parents studying at the kitchen table, and they end up studying together,” Callaway says. “We have 10 years of data, and I’m willing to bet that our students have children who have gone to college, which may never have happened without their parents’ success. We want to see how far this net can reach.”

Ellen Ullman

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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