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How we can help more community college students graduate

In Chicago, the three-year community college graduation rate is just under 23%. If we care about creating a more equitable society, we must provide better support for these students.

New research from City Colleges and suburban community colleges finds support is key to student success.
New research from City Colleges and suburban community colleges finds support is key to student success.
Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Like many of her peers planning on enrolling in community college, Monique L. Harvey was facing challenges that often derail a student’s dreams. Hers were especially acute. She was struggling with homelessness, financial insecurity and more.

“Where am I going to live, how am I going to keep my grades up, how am I going to pay?” she recalls asking herself.

In her pursuit of a community college degree, Monique saw the promise of an exciting career and economic and social mobility. She also saw just how daunting it can be. Nearly half of all post-secondary students in the U.S. start at two-year colleges, where earnings for graduates are over 40% higher than those of a high school graduate. Yet, nationally, two-thirds of first-time, full-time, degree-seeking students who enroll in community college do not earn a degree within three years.

In Chicago, the three-year community college graduation rate is just under 23%. The reasons are many: from juggling debt, family responsibilities and jobs to the absence of role models and pressing social and emotional needs.

Now 23, Monique graduated in 2019 from Kennedy-King College, one of the City Colleges of Chicago, with an associate’s degree, followed by a bachelor’s from Columbia College. She is now working as a family coach at Metropolitan Family Services with a goal to combine her interests in music, movies and community advocacy.

Her journey highlights what is possible for all students when a broad array of resources is available. Monique credits not just drive and determination for her success, but also support that included mentoring and professional coaching, connections to social and housing services, emergency financial assistance, and clothes for interviews.

She remembers standing in front of students at Kennedy-King over the course of Saturday sessions with her coach, sharing the accumulating good news: “I found an apartment and a job, I am vice president of student government, and I have a radio show.”

A research-backed approach

Monique is one of the thousands of students — at the seven City Colleges and three suburban community colleges — who have taken advantage of comprehensive support from Chicago-based One Million Degrees. Her achievements are not one-off anecdotes.

They are part of a growing body of evidence across the country that shows the significant impact that support programs have on community college student enrollment, persistence, and, most important, graduation rates. “OMD was the backbone I didn’t know I was missing,” says Monique.

New research from the University of Chicago Inclusive Economy Lab finds that students from City Colleges of Chicago and Harper College in Palatine who enrolled in the OMD program were 18% more likely to earn a degree within three years. At a time when college enrollment is falling at both four-year and two-year colleges, there was more encouraging news: High school students who applied to OMD during their senior year in high school were 73% more likely to graduate from college in three years.

When prospective college students are hesitant about what lies ahead, knowing there are others who have their back can make a huge difference.

The latest findings build on research from two years ago that found a meaningful impact on enrollment and persistence for students in the OMD program.

The role of community colleges has been at the center of the national higher education discussion; President Biden sought free tuition in his Build Back Better plan, although the proposal was later scrapped. But these findings, and research from other programs, matter when it comes to increasing the odds of graduation and offering a brighter economic future for under-represented women, Black and LatinX students. In a fast-changing economy, the research also matters to employers, who increasingly are turning to community colleges for training and re-training. In Chicago, “earn and learn” partnerships between community colleges and companies are growing, providing apprenticeships and career certificates.

The pandemic has tested community college students like no other time, and made even clearer the importance of support programs. OMD is expanding our services this fall to Colorado through a new partnership with the Colorado Department of Higher Education to provide support for low-income adults to obtain college credentials or degrees in Adams County, outside Denver.

Monique’s story and this latest research are a call to action, to accelerate the growth of programs like OMD in Chicago and around the country. Community college students, no matter the challenges they may face, are capable of extraordinary things when surrounded by supportive relationships.

If we believe in creating a more just and equitable society and work force, we must step up and support them.

Aneesh Sohoni is chief executive officer of One Million Degrees.

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