‘Stay the Course’ Program Keeps Students on the Path to Success



A comprehensive case management program that helps students financially but, more importantly, addresses their day-to-day obstacles can improve graduation rate in community colleges, according to researchers from the University of Notre Dame.

The paper is published in the National Bureau of Economic Research.

“Despite the well-documented benefits of an associate’s degree, most students who start community college never finish,” said James X. Sullivan, lead researcher, Rev. Thomas J. McDonagh, C.S.C., Associate Professor of Economics and co-founder of the Notre Dame’s Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities (LEO).

We need more information about how best to address this completion crisis. Success in school is critical for promoting opportunity and reducing poverty in this country.

Fewer than 40 percent of community college students in the U.S. graduate within six years, even though community colleges are often an effective path not only out of poverty, but also to their dreams. To name just a few — George Lucas, the creator of “Star Wars”; Amy Tan, the bestselling author of “The Joy Luck Club”; and Eileen Collins, the first female astronaut to command a shuttle mission — all graduated from community colleges.

The program, appropriately named Stay the Course, was designed by LEO in partnership with Catholic Charities Fort Worth and Tarrant County College to address the many factors that stand in the way of success for low-income students in college, including personal, non-academic, social, and institutional barriers.

The Stay the Course program pairs undergraduates with trained social workers who can mentor them through non-academic obstacles, such as child care, that often make students drop out. It also provides students with limited emergency financial aid that they can use for unexpected expenses that might make them drop out.

“We are currently facing a completion crisis in the U.S.,” Sullivan said in a statement. “There is a real need for cost-effective interventions. Stay the Course is an example that has been shown to move the needle.”

How they tested

From 2013 to 2016, a team of researchers from LEO and the University of Maryland conducted a randomized controlled trial evaluation of Stay the Course at Tarrant County College, a community college at Fort Worth, Texas. with approximately 50,000 students.

The researchers randomly assigned eligible students to three groups: one with full access to comprehensive case management and emergency financial aid, another with only emergency financial aid, and the last one as a control group.

Then, they tracked every student’s academic records for three years after enrollment in the program.

What they found

The researchers found that the students who participated in the full Stay the Course program were significantly more likely to stay enrolled and to graduate within six semesters.

“After six semesters, students who participated in Stay the Course had degree completion rates that were nearly 4 times as high as the comparison group that did not participate in Stay the Course (22% vs. 6%),” said Sullivan.

But researchers noted no difference in degree completion rate between the control group and those who received only emergency financial aid.

The researchers also found that the program was particularly effective for female students who participated in the full Stay the Course program.

“It is interesting that giving financial support alone is not enough,” Sullivan said in a statement.

Our study indicates that the involvement of a coach and mentor who understands the individual needs of each student is critical to improving outcomes for this vulnerable population.

Additionally, in a simple cost-benefit analysis, the researchers found that the earning boost that results from obtaining an associate’s degree is more than sufficient to cover the cost of the Stay the Course program.

What they will do next

LEO is collaborating with Catholic Charities Fort Worth to study the impact of Stay the Course as the program is implemented in other U.S. cities.

“To help low-income students complete their degrees, community colleges need to find ways to address the other issues that tend to knock students off track,” Sullivan said. “Bolstered by the evidence, Catholic Charities Fort Worth is looking to expand this program to other communities. Interested community colleges should consider being a replication site for Stay the Course.”

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