What can more financial support do for higher ed? Raise completion, for one.

Leading organizations say getting students across academic thresholds can be a boon for the economy, but the sector needs support.
By: | April 5, 2022
Intrusive advising, reverse transfers and dedicated programs for first-generation and low-income students have led to large increases in graduation rates at Howard Community College in Maryland.Photo courtesy of Howard Community College in Maryland.

The percentages of college completion are often difficult for those in the sector to discuss, but higher education leaders made them crystal clear during a recent webinar hosted by The Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS) and the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO).

Only 4 in 10 students who start postsecondary education graduate within six years and only 2 in 10 community college students make it through in two years. They are the reason the two organizations and dozens of others penned a letter to President Joe Biden in February pressing for financial assistance toward closing those gaps. They say college completion must be a priority because it not only helps individual students thrive in every part of their lives, it also emboldens the education sector and the nation.

“An analysis from Third Way found that if the same percentage of students graduated from colleges from high school each year, tax revenue at the state, local and federal level would rise by more than $90 billion,” said Michele Jolin, CEO and Co-Founder for Results for America, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a former Community Solutions leader under President Barack Obama. “We know that if more students complete college, the economy will get a tremendous boost.”

One of the most transformative ways for students to get there and for communities to reap the benefits is through evidence-based programs and comprehensive approaches to student success. Funding initiatives such as the City University of New York’s ASAP program, InsideTrack, MAAPS, Project QUEST, Stay the Course and One Million Degrees have produced solid outcomes. But higher ed leaders say support must continue beyond the current outlay of $350 billion targeted to states in grant relief, including $110 million toward these programs.

“We need governments to invest in these programs so that students can achieve their dreams and the public can benefit from having more college graduates,” said Sameer Gadkaree, president at TICAS. “All too often college leaders face a choice between adding resources without knowing how much they might help individual students at scale, or achieving deep impact, but only with a subset of students.”

Where it is working

The institutions that are implementing these programs are seeing success, including those in higher education. Gov. Roy Cooper gave UNC $5 million in emergency education relief funds, and the University of North Carolina system has been utilizing part of it toward completion with its own version of the CUNY ASAP Program, providing academic advising and meeting financial needs. It has partnered with Appalachian State, UNC Greensboro and East Carolina University to provide $2 million toward its Transfer, Accelerate, Complete and Engage (TRACE) efforts to students looking to go from community college to a four-year university.

“We’re in our planning year right now and we’ll begin our pilot year in 2022-23,” said Shun Robertson, UNC’s Vice President for Access and Strategy. “Deciding on the student population was pretty easy for us. Our president, Peter Hans, was previously the president of the North Carolina Community College System. He calls himself our transfer president. We know how important transfer students are for the success of our system and for the health of our state. Community College is the first step for so many low-income students, first-gen students and students of color. It’s important that we build strong pathways to our four-year institutions. With additional funding, we would help more students, not only at the three partner institutions but other institutions across the state.”

To have a better chance at getting future funding, Robertson and others say it takes intentional planning that tracks that success. “It’s important to show proposals and show the buy-in and commitment from everyone involved, from the provost or the enrollment managers to institutional research officers, because data is really important,” she said. “Everyone needs to be dedicated to the success of these projects.”

Roger Low, Founder and CEO of Colorado’s Education and Economic Mobility Initiative, agreed, saying states, organizations and higher education institutions must collaborate to build models for success.

“There is never going to be another opportunity like this, at least in the next few years. These are one-time dollars, and shame on us if we don’t, at a minimum, leverage them to pilot and build evidence-based models that do have a long-term model,” he said. “There are long-term dollars to be tapped, and we see this in conversations with employers who are desperate for talent. But there are over 40 federal funding streams out there with a postsecondary higher ed or workforce component. This system is just massively splintered.”

Why is this so important now?

“We’ve been talking for years about the skills gap,” Low said. “In Colorado, there are over 30,000 cybersecurity and coding jobs with an average six-figure salary. Even before the pandemic, less than a third of our healthcare workforce’s needs were met. At the same time, we have over 300,000 Coloradans of working age, who are at or below poverty. There’s this disconnect between the talent supply and the available jobs. When it comes to the higher ed workforce, there’s an increasing need for new approaches, new pathways and programs that work to connect Coloradans with good-paying jobs and pathways that yield a credential and a long-term ROI. There’s something wrong with the system where the community college system and workforce development, they’re not getting the outcome that they need to fill that skills gap.”

What will it take to grab the attention of policymakers? Maybe it’s showcasing examples like panelist Rachel Jerome, a Queensborough Community College alum from the CUNY ASAP program, which offers an array of assistance to students such as tuition and transportation assistance and payments for textbooks. Jerome made it through CUNY, earned a bachelor’s from Queens Colleges and is pursuing a master’s in higher education administration at Baruch College. She has also stayed on as an ambassador for Queensborough CC.

“You have to show the success stories. Put the Rachels in front of your legislators,” said Leilani Mercado, Chief Program Officer for Project QUEST, a workforce development program that has a 90% completion rate. “You have to show return on investment. You have to show data. You have to demonstrate all the ways that your program works.”