Cynthia M. Allen

‘Stay the Course’ proves it takes more than money

In public policy debates, there is a school of thought that money is always the answer.

That increasing access to services by making them free or low-cost is a policy solution in and of itself.

It’s the kind of thinking that has encouraged programs like tuition-free community college.

Making higher education and training more available to people who might not otherwise have access to them is a laudable goal, but programs that subsidize tuition in the hopes that this alone will result in more degrees earned are missing the mark. Just look at the results.

Community colleges see nearly half of their students fail to complete a credential of any kind within six years, even when tuition costs to the student are nominal or nonexistent.

That’s because many community college students face other barriers to graduation, from finding affordable child care, to selecting courses that keep them on track toward graduation, to coping with trouble at home.

Money is not what’s keeping many students from college completion — a finding confirmed by new study published in the National Bureau of Economic Research. But there are ways to help these students earn their degrees. And the answer is very close to home.

The group of researchers looked at Stay the Course, a comprehensive case management intervention offered to low-income students at Tarrant County College by Catholic Charities Fort Worth.

Each Stay the Course participant is paired with a trained social worker, called a navigator, who acts as a mentor throughout the student’s college experience. Navigators help their students develop a set of academic goals each semester and assist students in creating a plan of actionable steps to accomplish them.

Because Catholic Charities Fort Worth understands that external barriers are often what derail college completion, navigators also provide a litany of referral services, from access to tutors and financial aid, to external resources like health and child-care services.

All of the students enrolled in Stay the Course receive academic financial assistance through Pell Grants or other sources, but STC provides them with access to emergency financial assistance of up to $500 a semester ($1,500 for the duration of the program) for nonacademic expenses like medical bills, transportation costs, rent and child care.

Cortney Cunningham, who runs the program, says most students do not use emergency financial assistance. The program’s strength is its navigators who are able to build a rapport and a level of trust with their students, “walking hand in hand and shoulder to shoulder” with them through some of life’s unexpected crises. They help them maintain focus on completing school, she says.

Kasandra Boyd can attest to that. She’s been in the program for just over a year and insists that her navigator, who has helped ensure that “stuff at home doesn’t get in the way of my schoolwork,” is one of the primary reasons she’s persisted at TCC. While she’s made use of the emergency funds for a needed car repair, it’s her navigator who has made the difference.

“She’ll call me out of nowhere to ask me how I’m doing,” says Boyd. “She’s always making sure I have anything and everything I need for school.”

That personal touch may seem like a little thing, but it seems to be the key to getting big results for the students involved.

The researchers compared college persistence and graduation rates among the students enrolled in STC, with a separate treatment group offered emergency financial assistance but no counseling services, and a third group receiving neither but having access to all of TCC’s services.

They found no evidence that providing students with access to emergency financial assistance had any impact on persistence or completion. But students who were assigned navigators and had access to the full scope of STC’s case management program were about 31 percent more likely to earn an associate’s degree.

The sizable increases in school persistence and degree completion through six semesters mean the costs of the program — about $5,640 per student, including $1,500 financial assistance — are quickly eclipsed by its benefits, especially considering that students with degrees earn higher incomes and are less reliant on public assistance.

As Cunningham put it, this program is actually really low-cost. More important, it’s highly effective.

It’s also proof that money isn’t the solution to all public problems. Investing in people is.

Cynthia M. Allen: 817-390-7166, @cjmallen12