Stay the Course™


  • Catholic Charities Fort Worth, Texas

Focus Area

  • Education

“Students need the guidance, support, and resources to tackle non-academic barriers–the things that life throws at us. [These things make] a student put education and achievement on the back burner while they prioritize how to survive and handle those day-to-day disruptions.”

Catholic Charities Fort Worth

The Issue

College. For many Americans, the years between high school and adulthood promise a time for self-exploration, study, and community. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that nearly 70% of all high school graduates enrolled in college in 2016. And according to the National Center for Education Studies, 59% of undergraduates will obtain a college degree. 

Today, higher education is more accessible than ever before. Still, not everyone has the opportunity to earn a college degree and reap its many economic and life benefits. Especially not from four-year institutions. And especially not youth in poverty.

In a 2019 report, the Pew Research Center found that only 13% of undergraduates in selective four-year institutions were from families in poverty. While enrollment in four-year colleges is on the rise for kids of all socioeconomic backgrounds, only 20% of all undergraduates in 2016 were from poor families. 

At first glance, this is shocking. Especially because earning a college degree is one of the surest ways to gain economic security and break poverty’s cycle. But consider the many challenges faced by students in poverty. Unsteady housing and home environments, poor academic preparation, rising tuition costs, and personal and social obstacles are all significant barriers to earning a bachelor’s degree. 

Today, two-year community colleges offer a critical solution. These affordable and flexible institutions can help students in poverty navigate the challenges they face and reach their academic, career, and life goals. 

Earning a two-year associate’s degree from a community college signals career and technical experience for potential employers. Community college enrollment also blazes a path to four-year colleges where students can put their course credits toward a traditional bachelor’s degree. And because community colleges are more accessible than four-year institutions, they help ensure people in poverty have the opportunity to tap into the economic benefits of higher education. 

This includes higher earnings. In 2018, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that an individual with an associate’s degree earned over 7% more per week  than those with only a high school diploma. This equates to over $62 more each week—money that can be used to pay for rent, childcare, tuition, or basic necessities. Earning a college degree is also associated with better health outcomes, lower unemployment, and heightened community engagement.

Still, despite the many benefits of community college, these institutions face an ongoing completion crisis. Over 42% of first-time community college students drop out. And this proportion is highest for low-income students. Those who fail to finish a degree not only incur the debt of tuition, but they also forego the economic gains that come with education. Meaning they’re worse off than when they started. 

We need to better understand why low-income students are dropping out of college. If we know what specific challenges they face, we’ll be better equipped to help them make it to their graduation day. Because celebrating graduation is celebrating a brighter future. 

The Intervention

The Stay the Course program is designed to help low-income community college students in Tarrant County, Texas overcome barriers to college completion. To achieve this, the program pairs intensive case management with emergency financial assistance. 

Students at Tarrant County College who are enrolled into the program are paired with a social worker (or “navigator”) who coaches them through their college experience. Navigators also mentor students and refer them to the resources they need to meet their goals. This kind of case management is more comprehensive than what academic counselors typically provide. 

With the help of their navigator, students are empowered to overcome the many challenges they face, whether it’s finding affordable healthcare, selecting appropriate courses, or planning their next steps. Students also have access to emergency financial assistance that can be used for non-academic expenses that might bar their success.

Research Question

Does providing intensive coaching, mentoring, and emergency financial assistance to low-income community college students increase the likelihood they will earn a college degree? 

Intended Outcomes

  • Students who participate in Stay the Course will have better academic outcomes than those who do not—they will be more likely to persist in college, earn an associate’s degree, or transfer to a four-year institution.
  • Participating students will also have higher cumulative GPAs and more earned college credits than non-participants.

Research Study Design

The Stay the Course study is a randomized controlled trial. Students eligible to participate in the program must be 18 years of age or older, be enrolled in at least nine credit hours at Tarrant County College, have a GPA of 2.0 or higher, have accumulated less than 30 credit hours, and must earn an income below 200% of the federal poverty line. 

Because Catholic Charities Fort Worth and Tarrant County College do not have the resources needed to provide Stay the Course for every student, a lottery determines who receives a spot in the program. Those selected by the lottery receive the program’s comprehensive case management services and financial assistance. They become members of the treatment group. Students not selected by the lottery do not participate in Stay the Course. They become members of the control group. All randomized students are informed of their lottery results and are directed to a website where they can consent to participate. 

At the conclusion of the study, LEO researchers will compare the academic outcomes of students across the treatment and control groups. 

Update: You can find a summary of lessons learned from this research study here and the full research article, "Increasing Community College Completion Rates Among Low-Income Students: Evidence from a Randomized Controlled Trial Evaluation of a Case-Management Intervention," published in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management here.

(Photo courtesy of the Stay the Course program at Catholic Charities Fort Worth)

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