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A College System’s Path to Removing Barriers and Nurturing Student Success

With most jobs of the future requiring education beyond a high school degree, higher education institutions must make education more accessible to students from all walks of life. 

A few years ago, our college system, like many institutions navigating their way through the pandemic, had deep conversations about what it really means to support students.

While all of us in higher education want to offer meaningful student assistance, usually in the form of advising and campus engagement, sometimes student care can become more rhetoric than action—especially when we allow overly complicated processes to get in the way.

After 17 years serving as Chancellor of Ozarks Technical Community College in Springfield, Mo., one of the things of which I’m most proud is the institution’s ability to act on our words. We have a true dedication to students; it’s not a mission we let get tied up in red tape and campus politics. We want our students to experience a real relationship with us and to know that our values at OTC center on our dedication to their lives and futures.

It’s no surprise that this focus on wraparound services and meeting students where they are rose to the surface like never before in spring 2020.

As the pandemic set in, we got to work. Our employees made personal phone calls to every single one of our 10,000+ students. We got creative with funding, finding ways to help those going through financial crises that could have derailed their college education.

We made it our business to identify the issues and set out to resolutely address them. That’s how OTC Cares was born.

This system-wide initiative identifies and removes barriers to student success. It involves larger elements like new college navigators who walk students through any issue they face during their time here. But it also includes responding to short-term needs. A few examples include:

  • A couple, both students, lost their incomes after contracting COVID. The college secured the family grocery gift cards and referrals to other food resources until they could return to work.
  • A student with children at the college’s preschool needed winter coats for her kids. Our preschool staff worked with community resource specialists to acquire donated clothing.
  • A pre-nursing student who had car troubles and was struggling to make ends meet received a grocery gift card through the Student Emergency Fund to alleviate some of his financial stress.

I am proud to say that identifying these needs and finding ways to help in those moments are truly reflections of the character of the institution and the people of OTC. We are known to our students, our employees and our community as a place that cares deeply, moves quickly and gives back generously. This identity shows up everywhere, from conversations with community supporters to our employees’ efforts to ensure we are recognized as one of the Best Places to Work (and we really are).

But sometimes the most important acts are in the little daily moments. One of the greatest initiatives that stemmed from the OTC Cares initiative is something that has been very close to my heart: our Eagle Breakfast Program.

Long before the pandemic, OTC looked for ways to offer a free meal to all students. Locating the funding for such a program was always the barrier. However, when large, in-person gatherings such as our biannual college-wide picnics were canceled in spring 2021, we were able to repurpose those funds for a no-cost breakfast pilot program at our flagship campus. For an hour every weekday morning, any student could pick up breakfast items free of charge.

That summer, an analysis of the data found that students who participated in Eagle Breakfast completed their courses and had better grades at significantly higher rates than their peers.

With that evidence in hand, the Eagle Breakfast program didn’t just continue—it was expanded to include our five other campuses.

Now in its third full year, Eagle Breakfast is still going strong. The program continues to yield outstanding results for students, and funding it is now an institutional priority.

In the wake of the pandemic, other surveys found that an increasing number of students were at risk of falling short of basic needs like housing, food or other necessities. For college students, this kind of financial insecurity is a nationwide issue. The Hope Center reported that 23% of undergraduates were food insecure in the 2019-20 school year, and 8% experienced homelessness.

Data also show that students with two or more basic needs insecurities were less likely to complete their courses successfully than those with higher incomes.

OTC hired its first Community Resource Specialist in fall 2020 to address this issue. The role focuses on assessing students’ barriers to success and finding internal or external resources to remove those barriers. Due to that initiative’s success, the college has since hired two more.

In fall 2022, our CSRs helped more than 600 students, connecting them with tens of thousands of dollars through external community partners or the college’s student emergency fund. OTC also established relationships with 47 community partners who assist students with challenges such as food insecurity, homelessness or domestic abuse.

Efforts to help our students outside the classroom continue to pay off. Between fall 2022 and 2023, we saw a 3% increase in student retention. This adds up to hundreds of students on the path to earning a credential and preparing to take the next step toward a career or an advanced degree. It equates to a better-prepared workforce and employees who are ready to contribute to today’s economy.

A recent study Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce conducted finds that 66% of future jobs in the industrial economy will require education beyond high school, which is why removing barriers for students is vital to their success and that of our future economy. It is why programs that lead to credential completion—such as Eagle Breakfast—are now an OTC priority.