- Ivy Tech Community College South Bend-Elkhart, Indiana
“It’s not a matter of ‘if life happens’ for our students, it’s ‘when life happens.’ So we want to help them have a plan B, C, and D for that time.”
America, the land of opportunity—home of apple pie and dreams of middle-class bliss. Our nation was founded upon a cherished belief in liberty, dignity, and the freedom of possibility. For many, it lives up to its name. For most, unlocking resources and actually living the American Dream—not just chasing it—is a matter of race, gender, and socioeconomic status. And while violences like prejudice, racism, and economic inequality continue to plague our systems, education provides hope. It’s a path toward steady employment, financial security, and meaning. But for many Americans, it’s still out of reach.
The economic benefits of education are well-documented. In 2018, the Bureau of Labor Statistics explored the earnings potential of various education levels. Individuals who graduated from high school but did not attend college earned an annual weekly income of $712 per week, and their unemployment rate was 4.6%. For those who graduated with an Associate’s degree, weekly earnings totaled $836, with an unemployment rate of 3.4%. Bachelor’s degree earners reported weekly earnings of $1,173 and an unemployment rate of 2.5%. Education pays. Despite its benefits, it continues to go largely untapped.
There are many factors that contribute to the inaccessibility of post-secondary education, especially for low-income students. One is cost. College tuition continues to rise, and loans are overwhelming and often detrimental to the future financial health of graduates.
Second, academics pose a serious challenge. The quality of high school curriculums vary significantly, and the economic and personal circumstances of students deeply affect their level of preparedness for college. While kids from well-resourced home environments may have time to devote to their studies and extracurricular activities, many low-income students have to balance jobs, academics, and family responsibilities to meet their immediate needs.
Because four-year institutions aren’t always an option, community colleges offer a promising alternative for students whose educational paths don't include more traditional universities.
The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center estimates that 5.4 million students were enrolled in public, two-year colleges in the fall of 2019. College Board reports that the tuition for full-time students at public two-year institutions nationally was $3,730, compared with $10,440 at public four-year institutions. And after factoring in grants, scholarships, tax benefits, and other means of assistance, community college becomes even more affordable for many.
Still, many will drop out before they earn their degree. The Clearinghouse notes that among students who first enrolled in a two-year public institution in 2010, 45% either had not received their degree or they weren’t enrolled six years later. If this trend continues, over 2.4 million community college students today will not reap the economic and life benefits of an Associate’s degree.
Community college students are also more likely to be minorities and come from low-income households. The Clearinghouse reports that 44% of Hispanic students and 35% of Black students were enrolled in two-year community colleges in 2017, while only 31% of white students were. Regarding socioeconomic status, the National Center for Education Statistics finds that 55% of dependent students with family incomes below $30,000 in 2011 started at a community college, while only 23% of students from families with incomes of $106,000 or more did. And in 2016, they find that 37% of community college students were living in poverty with incomes below $20,000. Understanding who community college students are is the first step in addressing the unique challenges they face.
Today, there’s a lot of research focused on financial and academic barriers to student enrollment and success. Undoubtedly, these obstacles are important. But what if students who successfully enroll in college lack the social and institutional support they need to graduate? Whether they’re raising kids, working full-time jobs, or trying to make ends meet while pursuing their post-secondary education, community college students need guidance and access to simple tools that will enable them to complete their degrees.
From connecting students with childcare to reminding them of deadlines and helping them choose an appropriate course load, we need to know what works to help students achieve their goals. Because making it to graduation day not only creates opportunities for gainful employment and purposeful living, but it also blazes a pathway to economic security. And that—the opportunity to live the American Dream—should belong to all.
To address the community college completion crisis and help students complete their degrees, Ivy Tech Community College of South Bend-Elkhart is exploring how best to support its students. They’re offering two programs that are designed to address the personal and institutional barriers community college students face. The first program is a low-touch informational intervention. Participating students receive periodic text messages that advertise available resources and remind them of important upcoming deadlines. The second program is a high-touch intervention that connects participating students with Success Navigators, or counselors who provide comprehensive case management services. Success Navigators offer referrals to community resources and meet regularly with participants to discuss personal issues, course planning and preparation, financial aid, career paths, and life obstacles that may impede degree completion. Though the informational content of the high- and low-touch interventions is comparable, the high-touch program is much more costly and time-intensive.
How effective are high- and low-touch interventions in increasing rates of persistence and degree completion among community college students?
- This study investigates the specific mechanisms involved in community college completion by comparing the impacts of low- and high-touch interventions on rates of community college persistence and degree completion.
- If participants in both the low- and high-touch programs demonstrate comparable improvements relative to non-participating students, this study will show that high-cost, time-intensive case management services are not cost effective.
- But if there’s little difference between students who participate in the low-touch program and those who don’t participate in either the low- or high-touch programs, this study will demonstrate that high-touch, time-intensive case management services are effective in increasing college completion rates.
- LEO researchers will also investigate the impact of community college completion on post-graduation earnings and employment, and they’ll explore whether the impacts of either intervention differ by gender.
Research Study Design
The Ivy Tech South Bend-Elkhart study is a randomized controlled trial that evaluates the differences between expensive, time-intensive programs and low-cost, low-investment programs in boosting the persistence and degree completion of community college students.
To investigate the impacts of each program, first-time Ivy Tech students will be randomly assigned into one of three groups. The first will participate in the low-touch intervention and receive informative text messages. The second will receive case management services as part of the high-touch intervention. The students assigned to the third group will not receive either.
After consenting to participate in the study, students will complete a baseline survey that documents their student identifiers and demographics. Following the conclusion of the study, LEO researchers will compare persistence and degree completion outcomes of students across all three groups.
(Photo Credit: Ivy Tech Community College)