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Improving Community College Persistence Outcomes

Paola Rabago

Community colleges enroll nearly half of American college students each year and can provide a pathway to opportunity they may otherwise be unable to access. A large proportion of students of color, first-generation college students, students from low-income backgrounds, and adult learners are served by these two-year institutions.

But far too often, community college students end up with some credits but no degree or certificate to show for their time and investment. In one study, 67% of first-time students from low-income backgrounds who enrolled in community college had not earned a credential six years later. Persistence challenges may begin in a student’s personal life as they juggle college alongside work and family responsibilities. But it’s also important to recognize the institutional barriers that can exacerbate those challenges and threaten the path to a degree.

The Dell Scholars program is a scholarship and college completion initiative designed to support Pell-eligible students to graduate with a bachelor’s degree within six years. The persistence outcomes at community colleges are concerning, since our goal is to see our students transfer to a four-year institution to complete their degree. But starting out at a two-year college may be the right choice for some of our Dell Scholars and we’re here to support them along that path.

Here are a few of the practices that guide our approach to improving community college persistence outcomes for our Dell Scholars, so that they’ll be on track to transfer to a four-year college and pursue a bachelor’s degree. My hope is that these insights will provide value to other college success programs as well as our colleagues in higher education. Together, we can help make the promise of community colleges a reality — and support deserving students to unlock college opportunity.

Understand the “why”

Students should opt into community college when it’s the best option for their circumstances. My job is to help them make a well-informed decision based on their educational and professional goals, to make sure it truly is the optimal choice. When a student enrolls in a two-year college, they’re also entering into the potential complexity of the transfer process to get to a four-year college, the culture of a commuter school with less active student life, and more limited campus resources available to support them along the way. Some students will understand the trade-off and have weighed their options — but others may not realize all the implications of their decision.

To provide meaningful support, advisors need to understand each student’s circumstances and goals. Many students will opt for community college thinking that they’ll save money, but while tuition may be much more expensive at a four-year college, there is often more financial aid available. We help Dell Scholars compare their financial award letters to make an informed choice about bottom-line college costs. Academically, will they be better positioned to apply for a competitive major if they begin at a four-year college? What about personal and family commitments?

Start with the end goal

The Dell Scholars program is designed to provide students with the support they need to earn a bachelor’s degree, a goal they won’t be able to achieve through community college alone. With the transfer process looming ahead, we encourage students to map out their goals from the start. Where do they want to complete their degree and what do they want to study?

With a clear vision for the future, students have the information they need to avoid common transfer roadblocks like credits that won’t transfer to their next institution. It’s easier to keep up with prerequisites and application deadlines with a particular program in mind. Some community colleges and universities even establish “feeder programs,” transfer pathways designed to guide students through the process. And students are more likely to stay motivated when they can see the finish line at the end of the college journey.

Demystify the transfer process

More than one-third of college students will transfer before reaching a degree. It’s a process that is extremely common and yet highly individualized, meaning there is no single roadmap that will work for every student. No wonder it can be so difficult for students to navigate on their own!

At the Dell Scholars program, we guide students through building their own transfer plan during year one at a community college. Our advisors are there to identify any gaps and ensure the plan stays on track over time. That means checking in with our Dell Scholars on a monthly basis to confirm the following: Do they have all the information they need to apply for financial aid? Have they reached out to all the four-year colleges they are considering? Are they staying focused on their current academics?

Beginning in the fall before a student intends to transfer, here are a few milestones to keep in mind with action items for your student:

  • August to September: Students should begin researching the colleges being considered for transfer to make sure each is a fit for their needs, then set a meeting with the advisor at each college. Remind students to ask about transfer requirements like prerequisites and GPA.
  • October: FAFSA opens on Oct. 1. Students should apply for financial aid as soon as possible in case they are selected for verification.
  • November to December: Students should complete transfer applications.
  • January: With support from their advisor, students should review acceptance letters and financial aid offers to determine the best path forward.

Provide a support system

Oftentimes, students may choose to enroll at a community college because they are balancing significant responsibilities outside of school, such as caring for their own children, contributing to household expenses, or helping a disabled parent. Those responsibilities can provide incredible motivation for students to earn a degree but can also challenge their persistence as they struggle to balance it all.

Beyond financial support, the Dell Scholars program provides individualized coaching for every student along with practical resources like a computer, textbook credits, access to teletherapy, and a third-party resource network for matters like stress management, legal questions, or finding childcare. Whether through our newsletter, social media channels, or events, students can find everything from study tips to inspirational stories of students just like them who have persisted through graduation. We also develop messaging campaigns specifically targeting our community college students.

For many students, this support and encouragement is what makes it possible to stay on track — through community college, through the transfer process, and through all the challenges that come up along the way. Knowing someone is in their corner can make all the difference in the world.

Aspiring college students are hopeful about what the future holds. But that doesn’t always mean they have a clear vision of where they’re headed. Advisors can help them be more intentional about their progress through community college, with a clear pathway to their four-year institution and toward their long-term goals. As for those with a clear path in mind, the support of an advisor can make it possible to advance along the journey while balancing the other responsibilities in their lives.

The benefits of enrolling in a community college can be compelling. We should ensure that when it’s the right fit for their needs, students are able to access those benefits without compromising their path to a college degree.