Pathways to Success: One Student at a Time
Arkansas Initiative Shows Results in Aiding Needy Students
The national statistics are disheartening. According to the National Student Clearinghouse, only 39 percent of community college students across the country who enrolled in 2008 had earned a degree or technical certificate by 2014.
But something remarkable is happening in Arkansas. A new study reports an astonishing 62 percent among a cohort of lowincome, under-prepared students, who qualified for public welfare assistance when enrolled in college in 2008, have since graduated from the state’s two year colleges with an associate degree or technical certificate or higher, and have gone on to get good paying jobs.
What is going on? How is this possible?
How can this group of highly at-risk, predominately single moms, complete college at twice the rate of their Arkansas college peers? The simple answer is the Arkansas Career Pathways Initiative!
But first a little context. Economists have identified correlation between higher education attainment and employment that helps wage earners find their way out of poverty. Arkansas has long struggled with the second-highest poverty rate in the U.S. and ranks 48th in per capita income. It also has the 46th lowest postsecondary attainment rate among citizens who are 25 to 64 years of age. While 52 percent of new jobs in the state will require postsecondary education by 2018, 72 percent of Arkansas adults lack any postsecondary degree or college credential. Policymakers fear an economic train wreck looms.
Recognizing the challenge, Arkansas community colleges and technical centers stepped up to help address the costly cycle of low education and inter-generational poverty that has depressed the state economy for decades. Since 2005, Arkansas has been at the forefront of national welfare reform efforts using funds from the federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program (TANF), to send eligible lowincome parents to 25 community and technical colleges across the state for education and training leading to high-demand, higher-wage jobs.
Since inception, more than 30,000 atrisk Arkansans have enrolled in the Arkansas Career Pathways Initiative (CPI), which features more than 450 approved career pathways, offering stackable credentials and wrap-around case management services to help low-income students overcome the barriers that too often keep them from being successful in college.
According to Collin Callaway, chief operating officer of the Arkansas Community College Association, these case managers do more than help students enroll in classes — they become personally invested in their students’ success. “They are problem solvers, cheerleaders, career coaches, confidants — everything needed for a student who doesn’t have other support.” In addition to emotional support, case managers provide financial-aid information, career services and admissions support. Callaway says that a typical student would have to go to six different offices to obtain the information and support that a CPI case manager provides.
The average CPI student is a single mother in her early 30s, usually a first-timecollege student; many start by getting their GED or taking remedial classes. Some 65 percent are white and 30 percent are African-American. More than 80 percent receive food stamps or Medicaid and at the time of initial enrollment, and only 41 percent are employed. Most are earning minimum wage and aren’t self-sufficient.
Every student’s pathway is individualized, based on the assessments case managers conduct when they meet their students. Federal TANF dollars are used to help pay for tuition and fees as well as books, transportation, child care, and other supplies related to the degree or certificate as needed at an average of $1500 per student per year.
In 2015, after a decade of public investment, the Arkansas Community College Association recognized it was time to evaluate results for the popular program. With support from the Winthrop Rockefeller, Ford and Annie E. Casey Foundations, the association launched a rigorous external evaluation “College Count$: Evidence of Impact,” to measure the social and economic returns of the CPI both to participants and the state.
With technical and analytic support from Metis Associates out of New York City, evaluators were charged with answering: “Is there any evidence that the CPI is making a contribution to breaking the poverty cycle in Arkansas by reducing the number of Arkansas families living below the federal poverty line and by increasing postsecondary attainment completion and improving economic mobility across the state?” Phase One findings, just released in a new report available at www.collegecounts.us, indicate that of all 30,000-plus participants who have participated in CPI since inception in 2005, an amazing 51 percent have since graduated from college with an associate degree or technical certificate, more than twice the rate of their community college peers across the state who did not participate in CPI. In fact, CPI students in 2013 earned associate degrees at six times the rate of other community college students who enrolled that same year and didn’t participate.
CPI students are similarly earning higher wages than their peers. According to state Unemployment Insurance wage data, CPI students from the 2011 cohort, earned an average of $3,112 more in wages in the first year post-completion than did a matched comparison group of Arkansas TANF recipients from their same communities who chose not to attend CPI.
Research is ongoing. Outcomes are being disaggregated by race/ethnicity, region, and poverty level of students at time of entrance. Given the apparent success of CPI students in completing degrees at higher rates than their fellow students at local colleges, researchers want to investigate what about the CPI support model is helping these students complete developmental education sequences and successfully transition into college credit courses.
Researchers also plan to examine Arkansas Department of Education data to determine whether there are behavioral or educational impacts on the children of CPI completers once a parent graduates from college and gets a good job.
Ultimately, College Count$ proposes to launch a national advocacy effort to educate policymakers in other states and at the federal level about this innovative use of federal TANF funds and its potential benefits in ensuring opportunity for highly vulnerable populations. Many questions remain to be answered and lessons to be shared. Among early conclusions, stable leadership matters! Policymakers, college presidents and staff all give full credit to a small experienced team at the Arkansas Department of Higher Education who have led the program for more than a decade.
Secondly, accountability and good data are critically important. From inception, state legislators required the CPI to track what happened to participants, how many completed, were placed and retained in employment. The results are an extraordinarily rich student database that is allowing evaluators to answer many important questions.
But, researchers suspect the biggest factor in the program’s success, mentioned over and over in exit interviews of CPI participants, is the support provided by caring case managers who help CPI students successfully negotiate college culture and bureaucracies. Whether providing assistance in filling out a student FAFSA, helping an overwhelmed mom find quality childcare, support to purchase a struggling nursing student’s scrubs and first stethoscope, or encouragement in preparing for final exams, one on one personal mentoring is crucial.
While case management and provision of student aid require an up-front investment of resources, at an average of $1,500 per student per year, researchers are confident the economic return to the individual and the state with the resulting reduction in public assistance needs and increased tax revenues from improved wage earnings and sales taxes, will prove to be a very positive investment for Arkansas. If, as researchers suspect, positive educational outcomes are also found for the children of CPI participants including improved attendance, grades and test scores, ultimately leading to higher high school graduation rates, that rate of return will increase exponentially.
Now that’s a sure-fire return on investment you can take to the bank!
Katherine Boswell serves at the project manager for College Count$: Evidence of Impact. She formerly directed the Community College Policy Center at the Education Commission of the States and the Academy for Educational Development and was project manager for Community College Bridges to Opportunity Initiative, funded by the Ford Foundation. For further information about College Count$, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is a continuation of a series authored by principals involved in the Roueche Graduate Center, National American University, and other national experts identified by the center. John E.
Roueche and Margaretta B. Mathis serve as editors of the monthly column, a partnership between the Roueche Graduate Center and Community College Week. For additional information send emails to email@example.com or, call 512-813-2300.