Higher ed support for at-risk students

Campus services expand for students who have children, and for those who are homeless or in foster care
By: | Issue: October, 2018
September 17, 2018

Leaders of the Arkansas Career Pathways Initiative strive to provide students with more than just college access and employment.

Graduation and a well-paying career—in fields such as health care, education and industrial maintenance—top the list of goals for the low-income parents who participate.

“We don’t just want to put people in minimum-wage jobs or in jobs that won’t fulfill them long-term or meet the needs of their families,” says Collin Callaway, chief operations officer of Arkansas Community Colleges, which operates the program.

“We want to provide training opportunities that make a long-term difference.”


SIDEBAR: Ideas realized: How programs for vulnerable students began


Career Pathways students complete at twice the rate of their classmates who are not in the program, which began in the mid-2000s. African-American students graduate at three times the rate of other black students, and Hispanics complete at four times the rate of other Hispanic students, Callaway says.

The Arkansas Career Pathways Initiative is just one example of the many ways colleges and universities have expanded support for students who are at very high risk of dropout—including those with children, those who grew up in foster care and those who are homeless.

Swooping in to save the day

In Georgia, Kennesaw State University’s CARE Center offers a range of assistance to students who have lived in foster care, who are homeless or who are food insecure. It operates food pantries, provides emergency housing and rental assistance, and helps students buy textbooks.

Through outreach to community members, the center offers an adopt-a-student program to supply them with pillows, sheets, toiletries and other essentials.

Working with financial aid personnel, CARE connects students with on-campus jobs that sometimes start as temporary work assignments. Departments that hire students can be reimbursed with federal work-study funds.

The center has a full-time director, a staffer from a local college-prep nonprofit, and 11 student employees. It depends on donations to fund operations and pay staff salaries, and has served more than 1,000 students since it launched in 2013.

“A lot of students will say to us, ‘You don’t understand how close I was—I was contemplating suicide, and I felt like I couldn’t do it anymore,’” says Marcy Stidum, CARE director. “With us swooping in, it makes the difference between being a student and not being a student.”

Identifying students in distress can be difficult. Stidum and her team work with admissions, financial aid and the registrar to find—and reach out to—students who are having trouble paying tuition, for instance.

Campus police carry CARE bags containing food and toiletries that officers can give to students in need.

Learning to ask for help

Western Michigan University students who have lived in foster care get to help shape the institution’s programs that provide critical support. They have even participated in the hiring of staff at the university’s Center for Fostering Success, says Ronicka D. Hamilton, director of Seita Scholars, which provides foster students with $13,000 scholarships.

“Having a student voice at every level of the program has been one of the things that has been most effective,” Hamilton says. “We’ve reached out, and students have said what they need—though students don’t always know what they need.”

That high-touch contact begins the May before freshman year, when students have their first phone conversations with Seita staff.

In the summer, they attend a campus Transit Week orientation, during which they meet with other incoming foster students. Each Seita Scholar is eligible for year-round housing and is assigned to one of five campus coaches who have been trained in working with foster students. Some of the coaches have also lived in foster care.

One of the first key skills the students learn is how to ask for help, Hamilton says. “They will understand that it is a skill and how to utilize it when they get in a difficult place, instead of isolating themselves and staying in their dorms.”

The coaches also work with students on budgeting and other money management skills, such as spending tuition refund checks wisely.

In addition, the university tries to help students build a network of supportive adults on and off campus. That includes other students, relatives they may have reconnected with, a faculty member or a local businessperson.

“Hopefully, they can be matched with someone in the field they want to go into,” Hamilton says. “If they didn’t have consistent modeling growing up, they don’t always know what’s expected when they get into their work field.”

Cheerleading and therapy

The Arkansas Career Pathways program provides, along with job training, tuition assistance and “holistic case management” to state community college students who are parents.

“It’s not sufficient to just open the doors, bring people in and say, ‘Good luck with your classes,’” Callaway says.

The program was launched with funding from the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. At each college in the system, Pathways students work with a campus-based case manager who provides guidance on financial aid, class selection, career planning and other aspects of higher ed.

The case managers, who are trained by the state to work with people experiencing poverty, also monitor attendance and can help students with transportation, car repairs and even unpaid utility bills. Students in the program can receive free childcare vouchers from the state as well.

“Our case managers refer to themselves as coaches, cheerleaders and therapists, helping folks get through the hard times when they want to give up and there’s not anyone else in their circle encouraging them to keep going,” Callaway says.

The case managers track post-graduation employment. A year after graduation, 80 percent of the students have maintained the employment they secured after completing college. “They’re being successful in getting jobs, keeping them and making good wages to support their families,” Callaway says.

‘Children are thriving’

Near Boston, Endicott College gears its Keys to Degrees program toward single parents ages 18 to 24 who are eligible for four years of specialized, suite-style housing that also accommodates their children.

The college not only connects parents with local, daytime childcare, it also provides after-hours and weekend babysitters—who are often other students—so parents can participate in clubs, sports or other extracurricular programs, says David Vigneron, the vice president of institutional advancement.

These students must participate in internships during freshman, sophomore and senior years. As a result, students in the program find full-time employment and attend graduate school at nearly the same rate—99 percent—as other Endicott students.

And the graduation rate for the program is 67 percent—far higher than the national average for students with children, Vigneron says.

The college funds a large part of the Keys to Degrees program, which also relies on grants and donations from alumni and the corporate sector. Endicott has used federal grants to help launch similar programs at Dillard University in New Orleans, Eastern Michigan University, Portland State University in Oregon, and St. Catherine University in Minnesota.

“If we give these students the wraparound services, housing and internships, they’re just as successful as every other student,” Vigneron says. “All of the data show they’re graduating, getting good jobs, becoming independent—and their children are thriving.”

The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley also helps enrolled parents with the daycare challenge.

Those who have received a Pell Grant get free, daylong childcare at the institution’s Child Development Center, a year-round facility that is also open to university employees. A $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education covers slots for 65 children, says Raquenel Sanchez, director of the center.

The center had already been providing care for children of about 70 students. Parents pay a weekly fee of $155, though some also receive subsidies from local employment programs.

The center’s child development curriculum is similar to what’s used in local public school pre-K programs. “A parent enrolled full time can go to classes and study groups, and participate in student organizations,” Sanchez says.

“While parents are receiving a quality education, they can be assured that their child is receiving a quality education while they’re with us.”


Matt Zalaznick is senior associate editor of UB.