What Works: Improving (Community College) Student Outcomes

Photo Credit: Jake Rust

Even a very smart student may have a fragile support system.

With these words, Lynn Tincher-Ladner addresses a significant challenge faced by our nation’s 12.5 million community college students. President and CEO of Phi Theta Kappa, a large honors and scholarship program for high-achieving community college students, she sees the reality of inadequate student support systems every day. But this truth applies to many of our nation’s two-year and four-year college students – and will continue to resonate in the coming years.

Inside Higher Ed  recently featured studies on Phi Theta Kappa and the Dell Scholars program, highlighting the impressive community college student outcomes achieved with academic and financial support from these external groups. 85 percent of Phi Theta Kappa students earned either an associate or bachelor’s degree within six years. Dell Scholars were 25 percent more likely than other students to earn a bachelor’s on time – and also 25 percent more likely to earn one within six years. In comparison, 2015 data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows that only 38 percent of students who first enrolled at a two-college earned a credential (either at a two- or four-year college) within six years.

This isn’t rocket science. But it is a call to action. We know the challenges that students face now – challenges that will only be exacerbated as the traditional college-bound population shrinks and greater numbers of low-income, nontraditional and first-generation students arrive on campus and online.

When it comes to addressing financial hiccups and broader issues navigating and adapting to the higher ed environment, students need help. When they get that help – whether from internal resources or external organizations – most of them succeed. Colleges and universities have many tough decisions to make in the coming years about where to invest their limited budgets. There’s no question that competition for every dollar is steep. However, those that find ways to adapt, scale and execute effective student success programs are likely to fare better in recruitment, retention and ROI.

Yes, ROI. The authors of the Dell Scholars study conducted a cost-benefit analysis. Turns out the financial benefits in terms of enhanced earnings of recipients and their tax payments exceed the program costs after 12 years of post-college earnings. That’s the very definition of a win-win.

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