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As community college students return to class, let’s help them graduate

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As the fall semester begins, administrators and policymakers are rightfully focused on getting college students back to class after a year and a half of interrupted learning and declining enrollment. Community colleges, in particular, are looking to boost their numbers after a 9.5 percent decrease last spring. Yet enrolling students is merely step one: To fully benefit from their education, community college students must stay enrolled and graduate.

An associate’s degree can increase graduates’ earnings by 30 percent, and these institutions serve a substantial number of historically excluded student populations, offering an important pathway to economic equity. Yet most students who enroll in community college never graduate. These students pay a steep price — both in lost earnings and, in some cases, substantial debt — but do not benefit from the income boost that accompanies a degree. 

Fortunately, there are effective ways to address the completion crisis. A growing body of evidence shows that comprehensive, wraparound services help students persist and complete their degrees. Expanding access to these programs provides a promising way to improve employment stability and earnings for vulnerable individuals in a post-pandemic world. 

Policymakers are recognizing the importance of community college completion. Some states are designating millions of dollars of federal COVID-19 relief to retention and completion programs. The White House demonstrated its prioritization of education expansion in the American Families Plan, which includes a call for free two-year college and an under-discussed yet crucial component: A $62 billion investment in completion and retention services. Given the high rate of community college drop outs, this support is critical in helping students graduate and reap the full benefits of their education.

Low graduation rates are a persistent challenge for community colleges: More than two-thirds of first-time, full-time students do not complete an associate’s degree within three years. The pandemic has exacerbated this problem. Early evidence from the California Community College system indicates declines in enrollment and completion rates in 2020. Attrition is costly to taxpayers and students alike, making investments in effective completion and retention programs all the more urgent.

While free community college programs have been shown to increase enrollment, their impact on educational attainment is limited. In a study on free two-year community college, researchers found that students were more likely to complete associate’s degrees but less likely to complete bachelor’s degrees, as students shifted from four-year to two-year programs to take advantage of the free tuition. Other retention programs, like developmental and remedial education, have expanded considerably, but evidence on their efficacy is discouraging

Research shows that wraparound programs, in contrast, are impactful and cost-effective in increasing retention and graduation rates. These programs seek to understand and address the myriad reasons why students drop out. Many face personal challenges and institutional barriers that can make persistence difficult, such as familial obligations, health concerns, and financial barriers that extend beyond tuition. Wraparound programs employ mentors or advisors who help students identify challenges that may hinder their ability to graduate and provide them with the resources necessary to succeed. 

Multiple randomized evaluations have demonstrated that these programs work. An evaluation of the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs found that the intervention nearly doubled graduation rates. Other programs like Stay the Course, Inside Track, and One Million Degrees also demonstrated positive impacts on persistence and completion. An evaluation of Project QUEST exhibited positive impacts on credential attainment and the future earnings of participants. Students who received wraparound services earned 20 percent more on average than those that did not. While these comprehensive programs are not cheap — their costs range from $1,000-$5,700 per participant per year — the price is low compared to the economic benefits of a degree. The Stay the Course program costs $5,640 per participant for three years of enrollment, yet it was projected to increase annual earnings by $1,326, meaning that program costs could be offset within 4.25 years after graduation. 

Wraparound programs work, but they currently serve a limited number of students. The $62 billion outlined in the American Families Plan could be used to scale existing programs to  impact a greater number of students. 

To realize the full potential of increasing access to community college, we need greater investment in programs that increase retention and completion. The evidence shows that comprehensive wraparound services like mentoring and advising improve graduation rates, which translates into increased earnings down the line. Efforts to bolster community college retention and completion is an investment in the advancement of economic equity for millions of students.

James Sullivan is the co-founder and director of the Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities (LEO), a Professor of Economics at the University of Notre Dame, and an affiliated researcher of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


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