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Cash Incentives and Campus Coaches Improve Free Community College Programs



Adding cash incentives and educational support systems to existing College Promise programs increases community college students’ likelihood to stay in school and excel, according to a study conducted by MDRC, a non-partisan education and social research organization.

Since 2014, individuals on both sides of the political spectrum have gathered in support of making community college free, primarily for low-income students.

And a main driver behind this cause is an organization called the College Promise Campaign. In just over four years, the organization has successfully implemented more than 300 free community college programs across 44 states.

But the majority of these programs are only geared to increase students’ access to college. They don’t focus on creating pathways for students to succeed and eventually graduate.

With this deficiency in mind, the Detroit Regional Chamber partnered with MDRC to create the “Detroit Promise Path,” an initiative that pushes community college students to attend meetings with campus coaches by incentivising them with an opportunity to receive a $50 gift card every month.

The program has already positively impacted community college student enrollment, credit accumulation and persistence in the city.

Students who participated in the Detroit Promise Path program were 8.1 percent more likely to enroll in their second semester and 10.3 percent more likely to enroll full-time than those who only received the Promise scholarship, according to the study.

And Detroit Promise Path students were nearly twice as likely to complete 24 or more credits — a full-time course load — in their first year than students who only received the scholarship, according to the study.

“The effects of the Detroit Promise Path on persistence and full-time enrollment in the second semester are among the largest we’ve seen in rigorous tests of higher education interventions,” Alexander Mayer, deputy director of postsecondary education at MDRC, said in a statement.

Why retention is important

Community college graduation rates are staggeringly low.

And although existing Promise programs have done a great job at making community college more accessible, such programs have done little to address poor graduation rates.

For low-income students, especially, there are many barriers to success, said Alyssa Ratledge, an author of the study. And one of the largest barriers is that they have less time and space for slip-ups.

See, most low-income students attend community college with the intention of earning a degree that can lead to a higher wage, Ratledge suggested. However, by attending college, they sacrifice valuable time that could be spent working, so they can afford housing and food.

Therefore, it is extremely important for the low-income students who choose to attend college to graduate. That way they don’t waste a semester, or a year, working towards a degree that they never earn.

The demand for community college graduates

Promise programs are largely set up to be mutually beneficial, for both low-income students and the workforce that is in need of more trade workers.

But again, if students aren’t able to graduate, neither the students nor the economy benefits.

That’s where the Detroit Promise Path program comes in. The program has already had a positive effect on students’ academic progress, and the authors of the study appear to hypothesize it will result in higher graduation rates as well.

The biggest barrier to implementing Path programs

College Promise programs have rapidly spread throughout the United States and gained bipartisan support, but it still might take some time before society agrees to implement Path programs akin to Detroit’s, because they add a cost.  

“One of the big (barriers), in terms of having support services, is the cost,” Ratledge said. “It is much more costly to hire staff and provide additional support than it is to provide the scholarship alone.”

Although it may take some convincing, initial results of the Detroit Promise Path program are encouraging and suggest that it may be worth funding.

“It’s good news for the larger College Promise field, and we look forward to learning whether these results persist and eventually translate into higher graduation rates for Detroit Promise Path students overall,” Mayer said in a statement.

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