The road to college completion: A marathon, not a sprint

In Brad Hershbien’s article, College completion: Not just about the money, he speaks to the critical challenge of how complex the college experience is for students, especially low-income students. There are multiple issues that play into whether a student will ultimately graduate from college. While the issue of how to afford college is primarily top of mind, it is just one of the many challenges that low-income students will face.

The barriers to completion extend far beyond a lack of money to pay for college. In addition to poor academic preparation of students, scholars point to insufficient resources at the college level—students cannot always get into required classes and they forget certain deadlines when they have no one to help them. Poorer students are also disproportionately affected by family and other obligations. Indeed, these issues often become more salient when the initial hurdle of money for tuition is lowered, and students who otherwise may never have even applied enroll in college.

Given that these other factors –pressures from home, meeting deadlines, staying organized – significantly affect whether or not a low-income student will graduate from college, it’s important to understand the complexity of each student’s situation. Getting the whole picture is critical in offering the right support at the right time.

A holistic approach

I’ve learned through my work at the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation that looking holistically at a student’s journey from high school graduation to college graduation involves thoughtful planning for each individual student. Hershbien references a successful program at Western Michigan University thatprovides services found to be effective in promoting college success for low-income and first-generation students, including mentoring and learning communities.

The Michigan program creation of learning communities is a direct response to this idea of taking a holistic approach to a student’s long-term success. According to MDRC in the overview of their Learning Communities Demonstration:

Learning communities bring together small groups of students who take two or more linked courses that have mutually reinforcing themes and assignments. Learning communities seek to encourage peer relationships, intensify personal connections to faculty, and foster a deeper mastery of course work.

This type of active collaboration can drive a sense of education ownership and a feeling of belonging in the student. It can also serve as a future peer-based resource to help navigate the college experience.

Skill-building continues to be a primary determining factor of college completion and is something that we can’t ignore.

The need for skill-building

If we don’t tackle these foundational problems, we are not properly arming college students for success. Skill-building continues to be a primary determining factor of college completion and is something that we can’t ignore. As I mentioned in my previous blog, these vital non-cognitive or “soft” skills break down into two basic categories: How to be a more effective student and how to better handle problems as they arise. If we don’t tackle these foundational problems prior to a student’s enrollment in college, we are not properly arming them for future success.

Crossing the finish line

The journey to college completion is a marathon, not a sprint. And there are things we can do to support low-income students throughout their journeys. Mentoring, learning communities and developing “soft” skills are just a few examples. It’s essential that we take the time to look at each student as a whole, to understand the complexities of his/her life and to be thoughtful about the type of support we offer. Success isn’t who gets there first; it’s simply crossing the finishing line with a college degree in hand.