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.

For students participating in the OMD program, these supports lead to a 35 percent increase in full-time enrollment and a 47 percent increase in full-time persistence to the next school term. Prior research on the effectiveness of community college supports has found that interventions targeting only one of the barriers facing community college students–say, financial or professional–are not always effective. These early findings suggest what is possible with the appropriate level of investment and support.

OMD, a nonprofit organization founded in Chicago in 2006, serves nearly 750 community college students at 10 colleges in the Chicago region–students who represent the incredible diversity of the community college population in Chicago. These students, whom we call scholars, raise their hands to receive personalized support. In return, they commit to excelling in class, exploring career and leadership opportunities, and building relationships and social capital with each other and with OMD’s network of volunteer coaches, staff, and supporters. OMD scholars credit the unconditional support–academic, professional, and financial–with staying on track to graduate.

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Although “astonishingly little” research has been done in the community college space compared to four-year universities, we know what works to help community college students succeed. Although the Poverty Lab results are only two years into an eight-year large-scale, randomized controlled trial, we know that the “cafeteria” style of higher education in which colleges develop disconnected, though perhaps excellent, departments and programs, and assume community college students will find what they need, is an outdated approach.

Community college students–like all modern consumers–demand relevance and personalization

Community college students need partners to help them develop or refine a set of meaningful education and career goals, with all the supporting components–financial aid, tutoring, internships and work-based learning–woven in. Community colleges and their community partners must play the roles of coaches and consultants to students, nurturing and developing their vision and their potential, rather than leaving students in an environment in which only the fittest survive.

The Poverty Lab research underscores a key point: there is no single silver bullet to improving persistence and completion. It’s not just a financial issue or an academic issue, a scheduling, housing, transportation, childcare, or health issue. It is all of these things woven together. What may be a student’s most pressing challenge one week may be a distant memory the next month as the student faces the newest hurdle.

Here's how we change the odds for community college students

In order for students to complete community college, prepare for a four-year school, or thrive in a career, perhaps our most important work is helping them develop a sense of purpose and belonging in college, and building the networks and social capital they will need to parlay their skills into upwardly mobile careers. No one pursues a diploma just to hang it on the wall. It is a means to an end, and the end is work that enables a student to achieve his or her long-term financial goals.

Engaging scholars in a high-energy community of other ambitious students who share their goals and challenges helps make scholars feel less alone. It also helps them see that they are part of something bigger. When we add in more than 500 volunteer coaches who affirm each scholar’s ability to succeed, and provide a bridge into a professional world that is likely well outside the scholar’s experience, then we have something truly magical.

One of our current scholars, Luis, recently said it best: “OMD has changed my expectations by showing me that I can do a lot more than I thought I could. I feel like every student has the potential to be whatever they want to be, they just don’t see it. One Million Degrees helps us see it by surrounding us with other students who feel the same way, and by bringing out the best in us, showing that we can do whatever we want.”

Luis and the millions of community college students like him around the country are a vast talent pool eager to be recognized. With a little nurturing, support, and investment, their drive and talent can help ensure our collective future is both vibrant and just.

It can be done. We just have to decide to do it.

About the Author:

Paige Ponder is CEO of One Million Degrees.


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