When a person decides to enroll in community college, he or she embarks on a journey— one that often ends prematurely due to non-academic obstacles that make the goal of graduation an ever-distant dream. The fact is only 39% of students receive some degree or certificate within six years of enrolling in community college. There is a true completion crisis for low-income community college students, and it has lasting consequences.
In the long run, low degree completion blocks critical social advances these students need. It threatens both their long-term employment opportunities and earning potential. After all, 65% of jobs in our economy will require postsecondary education and training. Unfortunately, because it impedes economic mobility, the failure to attain a degree most often perpetuates the poverty into which so many of our poorest students were born.
Clearly, compared to their university counterparts, many low-income community college students are facing disproportionate barriers to completing an education. These students carry the burdens of poverty— burdens that routinely pull their energies away from academics and toward survival.
For instance, we don’t often equate college students with homelessness. When we think of college “kids,” we might envision them in dorms, or sharing off-campus apartments with roommates, or maybe still living at home with the mom and dad, but the reality is nearly one in five (18%) of community college students experience homelessness— often sleeping in places like a friend’s couch, a car, a local shelter, or even a storage unit. Other common challenges that affect academics include transportation, parental responsibilities, and financial stressors.
When obstacles like these arise, community college students can be hard-pressed for hope around attaining their degree. Or maybe their hope exists, but the vision— the step-by-step path to get there— is unclear. This is where Catholic Social Services (CSS) comes in.
While struggling community college students are often sized up by their deficits, such as the lack of a good job or a stable home, CCS looks at them differently, holistically. We see students full of strengths, drive, and heroic qualities that, when tapped, can lead to realized dreams. We see people who, with help, are capable of overcoming the challenges of integrating life and school.
That help comes through CSS’ Stay the Course® (STC) program. The program, launched in 2019 in partnership with Columbus State Community College, provides much-needed support for students struggling to complete their degree. Every participating STC student is paired with a dedicated Navigator (a Case Manager) who steps in to support, mentor, and advocate for them. The Navigator is a traveling companion of sorts, providing guidance and personal assistance along the path to degree completion.
Of course, first thing’s first: every journey needs a map, so when a student joins the STC program, their Navigator does an initial strengths-based assessment using a tool that we call a “Strengths Map.” Together, the student and the Navigator explore topics like:
- Financial Freedom: including having a savings account, living wage income, dealing with debt, and budgeting
- Education: identifying goals, careers/jobs, trainings, and courses of action
- Support Systems: identifying strengths and opportunities in the areas of child care, family, transportation, housing, food, employment, legal residency, and legal aid
- Well-Being: accessing areas of relationship health, emotions, behaviors, and mental and physical health
In using this Strengths Map, the Navigator helps each student understand his or her opportunities for growth, while also recognizing his or her unique strengths. After all, sometimes students need help believing in themselves before they can believe in their dreams. We remind them of all that they do have going for them and then assist them in setting goals and developing concrete action plans.
The Strengths Map is all about creating momentum. Completed actions compel students forward and build confidence at every step of the way. Hurdles are manageable when they don’t have to be faced alone. What seems like a Herculean feat can be accomplished when it’s broken down into simpler tasks and actions— pieces to tackle one goal, one day at a time. Sometimes moving by leaps and bounds must begin with a slow and steady approach.
We can see the benefit of this step-by-step approach in Jacob, a young man who joined the STC program in August of 2020. Jacob lives with his mother, but longs to move out and find a place of his own. After completing his Strengths Map, Jacob set a goal to secure a job with stable income. Once a position peeked his interest, he and his Navigator set the action step of creating a resume. Soon, he had a polished resume in hand, ready to be shared with potential employers. It was Jacob’s first completed action step, and he was so excited to have completed it that he texted his Navigator to celebrate. With that focused effort, he’s empowered and on track to apply for the job he wants. It’s a small step, but a big deal.
Like Jacob’s first polished resume, completed action steps serve as frequent reasons to celebrate and concrete reasons to realistically sustain hope— week by week, semester after semester— through the course of an entire college education. Students come to realize it can be done by learning to recognize and rely on their strengths; trusting in the support of their traveling companions; and approaching the goal on the horizon one determined and right-sized step at a time.
Through the STC program, 120 students will launch their journey with critical assistance that can make all the difference in the trajectory of their lives. Just like Jacob, each student will be provided with a “map,” a trusted Navigator, and a fortified sense of his or her own potentials and strengths. In this way, the STC program provides vital resources and support structures that allow each student to remain on a life-changing journey, advancing toward a completed college degree, along with the promising career and life opportunities that follow.