Opinion: Getting to Graduation

Lynne Bannister / June 12, 2017

Community college degrees for low-income women is best achieved through a comprehensive approach

The paradox of community colleges is that they are the institutions best positioned to close the wage gap, and yet many students do not graduate due to socio-economic stressors that transcend the classroom.

In 2008, based on research indicating that the most critical need of low-income women in Fairfield County, Connecticut was better economic security, Fairfield County’s Community Foundation for Women & Girls launched a pilot program aimed at addressing the problem head-on. They worked with Norwalk Community College to help women access the higher education and skills training they needed to gain higher earning jobs and improved financial stability.
A new report chronicling that work provides evidence that a “bundled service” approach to addressing the gap has had significant success.

United States Department of Education research found that from 2003 to 2009, fewer than half of US students who entered two-year public colleges earned credentials or transferred to a four-year school within six years of enrollment. When these students drop out, their loss is compounded by the fact that they may have spent years and invested tuition money in a program that didn’t result in the degree that would open career doors.

Community college students face a host of challenges generally not experienced by more affluent students at four-year universities. They are likely working a job in addition to attending school. Over a third of community college students are the first in their family to go to college. Forty percent begin enrolled in non-credit remedial programs that must be completed before beginning their degree-earning courses, making the experience longer and more expensive.

On top of these situational factors, most community colleges do not have fully-staffed counseling and psychiatric service centers, or other student support services tailored to the needs of working, low-income female students, many of whom are sole providers of dependent children.

In response, the Fund for Women & Girls of Fairfield County’s Community Foundation created the Family Economic Security Program in 2008. Its goal was to assist low- and moderate-income working students, with an emphasis on single parent women, in earning post-secondary education degrees — credentials that would, in turn, lead to careers that provide family-sustaining wages and benefits.

The pilot Family Economic Security Program was a partnership with Norwalk Community College. Students identified as lower-income parents, working a job while in school, received “high-touch” academic and financial counseling, peer support, and scholarship assistance. The program believed that frequent contact and support for students would increase their chances of graduating with an associate degree or transferring to a four-year program.

Four years and three cohorts of participants later, their theory was proven correct. Early evaluations showed the FESP students were outperforming other students in both academic credits and graduation rates. The average Norwalk Community College student earned 17.7 credits in two years. The FESP participants earned over 30. The average Norwalk Community College graduation rate is 14 percent. The FESP participant graduation rate, although varied across cohorts, is consistently higher than 25 percent.

The program’s success led to an additional program at Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Launched in 2015, the HCC pilot formed a larger staff than the NCC pilot and set its intention to leverage off-campus services. The HCC pilot will serve 400 low and moderate income students over four years and will provide more intensive and integrated academic, career development, and financial coaching services than the NCC effort.
Advocates believe, and prior evidence indicates, that providing this comprehensive package of services can maximize a student’s chance of success. We hope it can serve as a model for community colleges throughout the country that know all too well that just offering an academic experience is not enough.

Lynne Bannister is the Systems Coordinator for the Social Innovation Fund grant at Supportive Housing WORKS, Inc. which pairs supportive housing with improved health outcomes for very vulnerable men and women. She has had a long career in public health and social services in both the Connecticut and Boston area.