- The results of the Stay the Course study suggest that comprehensive case management services lead to higher rates of college persistence and degree completion among low-income community college students.
- Students who received Stay the Course case management services and emergency financial assistance (EFA) were 25 percentage points more likely to persist in school through their sixth semester.
- The program also increased students’ probability of earning an associate’s degree by 16 percentage points.
- The results of the study were especially strong for women. Women who received case management services and EFA were 2.7 times (36 percentage points) more likely to persist in college than women in the control group. The probability they earned an associate's degree also increased by 31.5 percentage points.
- Though the program costs $5,640 per student over three years, the earnings gains of graduates offset the program cost after a little over four years in the workforce.
The original Stay the Course study took place between 2013 and 2016 at the Trinity River Campus of Tarrant County Community College in Texas. For the study, 1,168 eligible students were randomized into one of three groups. The first group, which included 430 students, were offered wraparound case management and mentoring services paired with EFA. The second group of 299 students were offered emergency financial assistance only, and the 439 remaining students became part of the control group and were eligible to receive the usual services provided by the college. After students were informed of their treatment status, 94 enrolled to receive Stay the Course case management services and EFA and 126 enrolled to receive EFA only.
The Stay the Course study fills a unique gap in the literature. Though there are many studies that evaluate the impact of mentorship and case management on schooling outcomes, these programs often employ college counselors and have mixed results. Instead of college counselors, Stay the Course uses trained social workers from an external social service organization—Catholic Charities Fort Worth—to provide case management services for students.
What We Learned
The results of the original Stay the Course study at the Trinity River Campus suggest that comprehensive case management leads to higher rates of college persistence and degree completion for low-income community college students. Students who received Stay the Course case management services and EFA were 25 percentage points more likely to persist in school after six semesters. The program also increased students’ probability of earning an associate’s degree by 16 percentage points. Although the cost of the program is around $5,640 per student over three years, the earnings gains of students who completed their associate’s degree offset the program cost after a little over four years in the workforce.
Similarly, the study results also reveal what kinds of students the Stay the Course program is most likely to help. The sharpest differences in program impact were apparent across gender—the effects of the Stay the Course program on college persistence and degree completion were especially strong for women. Women who received case management services and EFA were 2.7 times (36 percentage points) more likely to persist in college than women in the control group. They were also 31.5 percentage points more likely to complete an associate’s degree.
Interestingly, this study led to key insights about the role of EFA in persistence and degree completion. The results suggest that there was little difference in the academic outcomes of those who received only EFA and those who were in the control group. Still, this does not suggest that EFA is an unimportant component of the Stay the Course program. Instead, it raises a separate question about the differences in academic outcomes between students who receive case management services and EFA and students who receive only case management services. This is a topic for future research.
The Stay the Course study shed important light on what barriers to success community college students are most concerned about. While visiting with their case managers, those who received the full Stay the Course package focused on a number of conversation topics. Over one-third of their interactions included academic discussions about class registration and tutoring, while over one-fourth of their interactions included conversations about employment opportunities and preparation post-graduation. Service referrals, housing, finances, and transportation needs were also popular conversation topics. By better understanding what needs community college students face and what kinds of services effectively address those needs, we’re one step closer to addressing the college completion crisis.
Results from the full study were published in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management.
From 2015 to 2017, LEO researchers conducted a randomized controlled trial evaluation of an extension of Stay the Course at Tarrant County Community College. That study found no statistically significant increase in associate degree completion associated with assignment to Stay the Course. However, this extension was implemented in a particularly unusual situation and environment, where degree completion rates for the control group jumped inexplicably from 16.9 to 36.6 percent in the two-year period. This tremendously large increase in completion rates was unlike typical Tarrant County Community College completion rates or year to year improvements. More details are available here.
Where We’re Going
Each year, the government spends billions of dollars in an effort to solve the college completion crisis. Today, we need to understand how to turn these funds into degrees for America’s low-income college students. The Stay the Course study helps to fill this gap. Its insights are especially important for policymakers—results show it’s possible to help low-income students persist in college at a relatively low cost. It also shows that support from mentors, counselors, and case managers is critical for the success of low-income college students. Since the study’s completion, the Stay the Course program has expanded to all five campuses of Tarrant County Community College.
To help build even stronger evidence, Catholic Charities Fort Worth is working with providers in other communities across the United States to replicate Stay the Course, and LEO is evaluating the impact of the program at these sites to better understand whether Stay the Course can be successful when replicated in new communities.
Still, many questions remain. How can the program be adapted to have the same results for men? Are students who participate in Stay the Course more likely to have better employment outcomes? Higher earnings? Stable careers? More research means more support—and more degrees.
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