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It’s a Journey: What Needs to Be Done to Get More Degrees in Students’ Hands

All a student may need is an opportunity for assistance to reach their full potential and eventually walk across the stage.
All a student may need is an opportunity for assistance to reach their full potential and eventually walk across the stage.

We all need help from time to time, whether it be with a personal project or professional development. Students are no exception to that rule. Promising student success is one thing, but having the resources to deliver it is another.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): About 65% of college students in Illinois attend community college, but only about a quarter of them graduate with a degree within three years. So, what can be done to boost that number?

Aneesh Sohoni (AS): Since our founding, we have worked to support more students, so they can attend community college and graduate on a pathway to upward mobility. We really want to know what works. There’s growing evidence that shows that providing holistic student supports are critical to boosting college access and success outcomes. I’ll speak to our program model as an example of that. We have a four-part model. First, we provide our students with a financial stipend. They’re eligible for up to a thousand dollars per year as long as they meet program expectations. It serves as a meaningful hook to get students into our program, and they know they have access to unrestricted funds they can use to keep progressing in their journey. Second is personal coaching. Our team of program coordinators works with scholars to support them on their academic and personal journeys and navigate whatever obstacles might come their way. Also—and a distinctive part of our model compared to other programs—we provide access to a mentor or a coach that supports students with the wisdom, knowledge, and social capital necessary to understand how to bridge their education to a career. Third, we’ve developed a professional development curriculum that focuses on career readiness and personal identity—who they are and what assets they bring to their education and their work. Here, we also provide a career readiness curriculum to make sure students are supported with resume skills, interview skills, and more. The last piece we provide is access to academic tutoring. 

These supports work together and make an enormous difference. Research from the University of Chicago Inclusive Economy Lab finds that students enrolled in the OMD program were 18% likelier to earn a community college degree within three years. At a time when college enrollment is falling at both four-year and two-year colleges, there was more encouraging news: Students who apply before enrolling in college were 73% likelier to graduate from college in three years. 

Evo: How does someone being the first in their family to go to college impact both their family and their community?

AS: It’s worth noting whom community colleges serve: The majority are first-generation college-going and often low-income students. Last year, 84% of our students identified as Black or Latinx. It’s a demographically diverse population. We also know that community college students are likelier to be from their local community and to stay in their local community.

A degree has a meaningful impact directly on a student’s earning potential. Research shows that an associate degree leads to earning power 25% higher over a lifetime than just a high school degree. That doesn’t include the number of students who then transfer to and graduate from a four-year institution. That’s a powerful lifetime earnings gain. A second thing we know is that when you’re the first in your family to graduate from college, you serve as a model and proof of what can be possible for others. So much of what we’ve learned is that you can only be what you can see or understand is possible. Having a direct family connection to a brother, sister or cousin who was able to graduate really motivates you.

From the community standpoint, community colleges offer an incredible opportunity to ensure we have more diverse talent in our local economy and local companies. That’s a powerful contribution to our country, to our cities and to our communities. A recent national study showed that the number one factor that influenced an individual’s upward trajectory was the extent to which they had “economic connectedness” or cross-class relationships. It was a greater factor than school quality, family structure, job availability or a community’s racial composition. This shows us how effective the mentoring or coaching part of the OMD program is because it helps to bring people together, often across class lines to create a mutually beneficial relationship.

Evo: Are there any specific areas in which you’re finding generally students require more assistance?

AS: It varies by student, which is why our model works: We take a very individualized approach. That said, there are a few things our students find most helpful and are most excited about, plus a few things, especially in the context of the pandemic, we’ve seen they need more of. In terms of most helpful, they frequently cite the power of the community they build among fellow scholars and our support team. We’ve created a community of support for our students. Having access to a coach and a mentor from their professional network gives them access to social capital. They find it also really helpful to have a program coordinator on our team who’s often a peer and has gone through a similar experience. They’re able to speak to some of the same challenges they faced in pursuit of their academic journey.

Through the pandemic, we’ve seen a rise in requests for wellbeing supports to make sure students have what they need to navigate a challenging time amplified by the pandemic. The financial piece is always top of mind is a big topic now with the plan to forgive some federal student loans: We want to make sure that students have the resources to pursue their journey. It’s why we have E Grants—either enrichment grants or emergency grants. For example, sometimes our students will need to take a test to get a credential or a job. We support them financially to make sure this is not a barrier to their first paycheck. In an emergency, a student will need a laptop to access an increasing number of remote classes. So, we’ll provide funding for that as well.

Evo: What can a higher education institution do to better attract, engage and retain their students?

AS: I’ll share two thoughts. We’ve spoken about the power of community. There’s irony, of course, in the fact that students often don’t live on a community college campus. Often, you aren’t part of a community. So much of the college experience is the residential community those who attend four-year institutions or other universities gain. That’s why I think a lot of what we provide is so powerful when our students are walking around their campus. I’m sitting right now at Malcolm X College in Chicago, for example, and I see students looking to their left and to their right and seeing another OMD Scholar.

Secondly, I always ask students about their hopes and dreams. I never hear that their hopes and dreams are to get an associate degree. I hear that they understand that it’s a helpful part of the journey, but what they really want is access to a career that can help them live their life’s purpose. We continue to stress to students the connection between what you are doing now, what your hopes and aspirations are and the pathways to get there. Together, these elements will really support, engage and retain students.

Evo: What can the student themselves do to ensure they’re setting themselves up for success?

AS: When I think about the student’s role, I first ask what the adults in the system are doing to ensure students have access to opportunities. Are students equipped with the right knowledge, information and opportunities to know what their best options are? Then, students can use their agency to set themselves up for success. They can ask questions, build relationships and engage with their mentors to take advantage of the opportunities provided to them. Second, I’m going to keep harping on this point of community: Find your community of peers and fellow students. The experience will feel so much less isolating. Take advantage of the supports that OMD or a college is providing. We hear often from our students, especially first-generation students, that everything is new and scary. You don’t know what you don’t know. Continue to be curious and seek out all the information available to you.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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