It's time to invest in student success

Lane A. Glenn

All across America, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, just over half of the students who begin a college degree end up graduating.

Not surprisingly, a higher percentage of students graduate from places like Harvard, MIT and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, than from Lasell University, Salem State University, and my own institution, Northern Essex Community College.

The students at those prestigious institutions are far wealthier, better prepared and generously supported, while the students at those “open door” colleges are, for the most part, poorer, less academically prepared and far less supported with resources to address their needs.

A table drawn from research by the Delta Cost Project, the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education, and the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education tells the story pretty clearly.

The comparisons are not exactly “apples to apples” in terms of each segment’s mission and offerings, but the incredibly wide spending gap between the haves and have-nots, particularly community college students, is jaw-dropping.

The students who need the least get the most; and the students who need the most get the least.

As an example: According to Opportunity Insights, a big data crunching project at Harvard University, the median family income of a student at Tufts University in Medford is $224,800, and 77% of the student body comes from the top 20 percent of wealthy families in America.

Once they arrive at Tufts, students can expect generous accommodations and support services from a private, selective research institution that spends approximately $70,000 for every full-time equivalent student on campus.

A mere four miles away in Charlestown, the median family income of a student at Bunker Hill Community College is $36,600, and only 8% come from the top 20 percent of the socioeconomic ladder. A full 25% of the student body at Bunker Hill comes from the bottom 20% of earners.

Like the rest of Massachusetts’ 15 public community colleges, Bunker Hill spends about $13,000 per full-time equivalent student.

Increasingly, even some of those meager resources that would be best spent on advising, tutoring and other academic support services must instead be spent on food pantries, clothing closets and community partnerships to assist with shelter. According to a recent statewide survey, more than a third of Massachusetts community college students struggle with hunger and homelessness.

How much would it cost to turn these trends around, and radically improve student success rates at “open door” colleges in Massachusetts and across America?

Not much. How about $1,561 per student?

That’s how much the Pathways to Academic and Career Excellence program at Northern Essex Community College spends, thanks to a federally funded TRiO Student Support Services grant. The results are impressive.

Last year, with $402,782 in grant funding, the PACE Program served 258 students and:

· 94% persisted (remained enrolled at either at Northern Essex or a transfer college);

· 94% were in good academic standing (had a GPA of 2.5 or higher); and

· 72% graduated with a certificate or degree within eight semesters of entering PACE.

These success rates are 20% to 30% higher than our overall student population.

So, what’s the secret? Are PACE students smarter? Do they come from wealthier, better educated families? No and no.

In fact, to qualify for the PACE Program, you need to meet federal low-income financial guidelines and be a “first generation” student (no one else in your family has completed a college degree).

The difference for our PACE students is that once they are admitted to the program, that little extra funding — $1,561 each — gets them more personal attention in the form of individualized academic advising, transfer advising, scholarship advising, field trips to four-year colleges, financial literacy workshops and more.

That’s it — $1,561 and more personal attention for the same population of students that, without this extra support, would be far less likely to make it.

And the PACE Program isn’t alone.

Other programs

The STRIVE program at Holyoke Community College receives $360,885 in federal grant funds to support 224 students ($1,611 per student). Its students must be first generation and have financial need or have a documented disability.

Once admitted, they receive wrap-around support in the form of learning coaches, peer mentors, academic skills workshops, financial aid and career advising. Their success outcomes, like those for PACE students, are consistently higher than their overall student population:

· 80% persisted (remained enrolled at either at Holyoke or a transfer college);

· 98% were in good academic standing (had a GPA of 2.5 or higher); and

· 46% graduated with a certificate or degree within eight semesters of entering STRIVE.

Perhaps the best-known example of these kinds of personal support services that make a difference is the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) offered by the City University of New York.

ASAP requires that students attend full-time (which is a well-known factor in improving college graduation rates, though hard for many community college students to do). It provides not only individual advising, tutoring and other services, it also gives tuition waivers, free textbooks and even bus and train passes to get back and forth to campus.

Yes, community college students often must drop their classes for the simple reason that they cannot afford transportation.

The price tag for ASAP is much higher: approximately $16,000 per student. But the results are inarguable. Retention, graduation and transfer rates for ASAP students are all significantly higher.

There are 1,051 community colleges in America. More than likely, every one can provide an example of success they have found with similar strategies using limited, probably temporary, funding.

The bottom line is this: Open-door colleges like Northern Essex, Bunker Hill and Holyoke don’t need another study to tell us how to help our students succeed. We know.

What we need is the resources to do it.

At $1,561 per student, scaling up the PACE program to serve all 5,000 of our students would cost $7.8 million.

Scaling it up across all 80,000 students at Massachusetts’ 15 community colleges would cost around $125 million.

That’s not cheap, but wow, what a big bang for the bucks.

The Massachusetts workforce is facing a desperate shortage of 65,000 college-educated workers just a few years from now. The commonwealth’s community colleges could immediately begin addressing that problem with thousands of new graduates each year — including more low-income residents and students of color from our gateway cities — thus improving the overall economy and standard of living for a huge portion of the population, while adding to tax rolls and reducing the need for unemployment benefits, subsidized health insurance and incarceration.

Want out even easier? Provide funding for first-generation, low-income students only, and cut the price tag roughly in half — $62.5 million — and you’re still going to get huge benefits.

Where does all that money come from?

How about the commonwealth? Given the potential return on investment, this is a bargain for the state’s taxpayers.

How about the business community? One of the biggest headaches CEO’s and human resource officers have in nearly every sector is finding qualified talent. Get creative spreading this cost around (maybe even split it 50/50 with the state) and, bingo, problem solved.

How about a social impact bond? Skeptical about just throwing money at a problem and not seeing results? We could get creative and issue “social impact bonds,” a form of investing in public sector work that provides a potential return to civic-minded funders, while doing more to measure success of the funded activities along the way.

So, let’s do it!

If student success, particularly for the underserved, and meeting the commonwealth’s workforce needs are important enough, there are plenty of ways to make this work. It’s only $1,561.

Lane Glenn is president of Northern Essex Community College, which has campuses in Lawrence and Haverhill.



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