For generations, community colleges have been the unsung heroes of the higher education system, the engines of social and economic mobility in our country. This broad network of colleges, which attracts more than 40 percent of first-time college-goers, provides open access to college for low-income students, rural students, first-generation students, parenting students, working students, and returning veterans. These community college students seek an affordable on-ramp to education that enables them to still fulfill the other critical responsibilities of their lives. And this on-ramp has a very clear ROI: earnings can increase 30 percent over a lifetime for associate degree holders, compared to those with a high school degree.
Yet, the promise of a degree remains unrealized for too many. Graduation rates at community colleges are chronically low–just 31 percent nationally. This matters both in terms of doing right by these deserving community college students and in terms of having the educated, nimble workforce and electorate we need for our economy and democracy to thrive. Community college students face an array of challenges: many are working at least part-time, caring for children and other family members, and living on the edge of financial crisis.
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New research shows that we can change the odds. Findings from the University of Chicago Poverty Lab show the dramatic impact of the One Million Degrees (OMD) system of support with Chicago-area community college students. OMD provides an integrated, holistic set of services including success coaching, mentoring, tutoring, professional development, and financial assistance.