How Student Support Services Create a Stronger Workforce

Posted on January 29th, 2024
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A Black male counselor talks to a female student with long black hair
A Black male counselor talks with a female student with long, black hair and a colorful striped sweater

By Sarah Hicks

Imagine two students about to enter community college. One is offered a full slate of student support services, including robust academic counseling and additional help. The other goes through the enrollment process after one meeting with a counselor and the help of an online assistant.

They may start classes for the same program on the same day, but the probability that each student will succeed is dramatically different — and they haven’t even set foot in the classroom.

The difference is student support services. More support through the enrollment process, career planning and beyond helps community college students graduate with degrees, attain meaningful jobs and fill gaps in the workforce.

A Brookings review of the research found that expanded student support services help students stay in community college longer and graduate with a degree more consistently. This is especially true for low-income and first-generation students, who make up a large share of community college students.

Student support: Why it matters

Young mom with a baby looks at her laptop at a cafe
Community college graduation rates are low. Many of the obstacles that students face, such as being a single parent, have little to do with academics. (Credit: Ekaterina Pokrovsky/Shutterstock)

 

About 46% of students complete community college within six years, according to National Student Clearinghouse data. What the numbers don’t show is the obstacles that keep many community college students from completing their studies. Many of those obstacles have more to do with economics than academics. According to the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC):

  • 66% of community college students are part-time (to account for other responsibilities, such as work)
  • 30% are the first generation in their families to attend college
  • 16% are single parents

Other common issues students face include limited access to technology, lack of transportation and difficulty navigating the higher-education maze. Basic financial needs can get in the way. For example, a 2018 survey of community college students by the Working Students Success Network found that 62% of students would not be able to come up with $500 to cover an unexpected bill.

Another stumbling block is the inability to get into the right class at the right time. According to a report from research and service agency WestEd, a lack of structure and support in the enrollment process leads to confusion and unnecessary courses. The authors, citing numerous studies, write:

"In many community colleges, students report that they do not receive enough information about program requirements and options … and they 'develop information by taking courses almost at random.' … Many students are surprised to find out that the courses they completed when they were exploring options do not count toward the major they eventually select."

One student summed up his personal experience in more blunt language.

“It’s like a weird maze,” said Santos Enrique Camara of his experience at community college in an article for Hechinger Report. He was 19 at the time and had finished high school with a 4.0 grade-point average. “You need help with your classes and financial aid? Well, here, take a number and run from office to office and see if you can figure it out.”

How more structured support can help

A friendly fellow student, a young Black woman, shows support to a fellow student, a Hispanic male
Everyone experiences obstacles. Students who lack a support network may be unable to take those disruptions in stride. (Credit: Mr.vicpix/Shutterstock)

 

A lower completion rate means fewer students earn the degree or short-term certificate needed to obtain a good-paying, in-demand job, such as dental hygienist, electrical lineman, cybersecurity analyst or diesel mechanic

Student support services, also called wrap around services or student supports, help students reach those goals. Services address barriers to enrollment, staying in school and completing a degree.

A federal program called TRIO Student Support Services awards grants to community colleges and other institutions to provide academic tutoring and support to help students complete their education. This baseline help is the most common type of service offered at community college, but the most effective programs do much more to build student resilience, the ability to keep going in school and take disruptions in stride.

The Brookings report found the most successful programs offer comprehensive support, a primary advisor and ongoing services that touch on many areas of the student’s life, including those outside the classroom.

“Though the terminology differs across programs, the intent of this service is similar. The case manager (or coach or navigator) works closely with the student to assess the unique challenges they face, identify appropriate goals and a plan to achieve them, drive accountability to follow through on the plan, and offer personalized guidance when obstacles arise. In addition, all of these programs are designed to provide services to students for an extended period of time, often lasting multiple years. Some of these programs also provide students with academic supports such as tutoring and advising, as well as financial assistance to cover fees, transportation, or emergencies."

The biggest benefits of student support services

A white female student and a Black male student pose for a graduation selfie.
A higher graduation rate means more people have the skills needed for in-demand jobs. (Credit: PeopleImages.com - Yuri A/Shutterstock)

 

Student supports improve outcomes in numerous ways, but there are four benefits that pay the biggest dividends, especially for low-income and first-generation students.

1. Improved academic performance

Goal-focused enrollment and career counseling help students make more informed choices, especially early on in their education. Students concentrate their attention on required courses, understand how each course fits into a career plan and spend time and energy only on courses that support their goals. Community college students who use academic advising services and tutoring are more likely to do well and continue their education compared to those who don’t utilize these services, according to a 2022 New America Community College Enrollment Survey.

2. Increased retention rates

Keeping students in school after the first year is a pain point for community colleges, and comprehensive services improve these outcomes. One Million Degrees (OMD) is a nonprofit organization serving community college students in the Chicago metro area. Students are helped financially, academically, personally and professionally — whatever is needed to clear the path. Students who worked with OMD showed big gains in persistence or the ability to finish one class and move on to the next. In the first year, students in OMD showed a 16% increase in full-time persistence. Those who continued in the program showed bigger gains, with a 47% increase in full-time persistence.

3. Higher graduation rates

Comprehensive programs help students reach the finish line and get the degree or certificate they need to get a good-paying job. For example, the Arkansas Career Pathways Initiative (CPI) helps low-income parents enroll in and stay in community college by providing counseling and tutoring. In addition, students can utilize Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) dollars to fund some tuition and non-tuition expenses. CPI students have a 62% completion rate vs. the 41% rate for all community college students in Arkansas.

4. Better job prospects

Full-time, year-round workers with an associate degree earn 25% more than workers with only a high school degree. More significantly, students who have clearly defined career pathways learn skills that are better aligned with job market needs and the requirements needed to transfer to a four-year college. Robust career pathway programs make sure students get the skills they need to prepare for the jobs they want.

Community college success stories

The schools of CUNY, also called City University of New York, offer many successful student service programs
City University of New York, commonly known as CUNY, is the public university system of New York. It includes seven community colleges and seven professional institutes in addition to some four-year institutions. (Credit: Ameer Mussard-Afcari/Shutterstock.com)

 

Almost all community colleges offer counseling and tutoring, but many of the most effective programs offer more personalized services, such as technology assistance, help with transportation and/or childcare and financial assistance beyond tuition and books. These examples reveal there’s more than one way to meet students where they are.

City University of New York’s ASAP program

City University of New York (CUNY) offers the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP), which offers a wide range of comprehensive support services, including personal and career counseling, financial support, transit cards, a sense of community and tutoring. Students are required to attend school full-time. The program helps students create academic plans, provides structured roadmaps or guided pathways of the courses needed to earn a degree or credential, and helps students stay on course. In their first year, students follow block schedules, meaning they take fewer classes, but classes are longer and more focused.

According to the Community College Research Center's report, What We Know About Guided Pathways, ASAP students are more likely than traditional students to earn an associate degree in two years, are twice as likely to complete an associate degree in three years and more likely to enroll in a four-year college at the end of their third year.

The program has expanded from 4,300 students to 25,000 in New York, and other states have replicated their model, including Ohio and California.

Tarrant County Community College’s Stay the Course program

Stay the Course is structured differently than other support programs. It’s a partnership created between Catholic Charities Fort Worth, Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities at the University of Notre Dame and Tarrant County College, a group of two-year colleges in central Texas.

Stay the Course provides personalized assistance to low-income students through personal navigators, who work with a limited number of students and guide them through everything from enrollment and career planning to overcoming non-academic obstacles. Consistent check-ins by their navigators help first-generation students stay on track and overcome barriers, such as lack of child care or transportation, that could push educational plans to the back burner.

As one Stay the Course participant told The Dallas Morning News, it wasn’t motivation that stood in her way, it was transportation. Dry-rotted tires meant the car she relied on to get to class and work was unsafe. Her navigator helped her get a new set of tires and focus on school. “If you have mountains that you’re facing, they help you chisel down to get to where you need to be. I don’t feel like I was just another number. I felt a part of the family.”

North Carolina’ Student Success Center

North Carolina takes a big-picture view, guiding all of the state’s community colleges to improve graduation rates. The North Carolina Student Success Center helps institutions develop, evaluate and scale student support services. That includes direct financial support to address students’ lack of food or proper housing as well as programs to prompt institutional change, such as increasing equity awareness and faculty development.

The program also helps individual schools institute guided pathways, which show students a clear route to a specific degree and make sure students are learning and staying on course. Some guided pathways lead to employment while others offer a smooth transition to a bachelor’s degree program.

The program is implemented at different speeds at each institution, and schools can learn from each other’s successes in different areas. One example is technology. At Halifax Community College, if a student misses too many classes or is performing poorly, an advisor gets an alert to contact the student and see what’s needed to get back on track. At other institutions, similar alerts may be triggered when a student signs up for a course that won’t count toward their selected degree.

More funding needed for student support programs

Young women talk in a computer lab
One-on-one assistance at key moments makes an impact on success rates at community college. (Credit: fizkes/Shutterstock)

 

The research shows holistic student support services have a positive impact on students’ academic performance, retention rates, graduation rates and job prospects, but the programs don’t always get the attention or budget they deserve.

“Support many times is viewed [as] less than the core of what colleges do, and it is often the first place that corners are cut, but if you make it part of what the college does, you are reinforcing the fact that support is part of learning — for example, how students manage their time is part of learning. It reinforces that these things are valuable,” says Melinda Karp, a senior research associate at Community College Research Center interviewed for the WestEd report.

When colleges provide well-structured support that focuses on maximizing students’ time and effort, the payoff is clear: Students graduate in less time, spend less money and earn degrees and skills that employers need.

Two experts on this topic say it’s worthwhile for institutions and communities to pay for student support services.

"When students finish in a timely manner, they save money and more quickly advance into a career that will move them up the economic ladder,” Dr. Chris Reber, president of Hudson County Community College in New Jersey, and Aneesh Sohoni, CEO of One Million Degrees, write in Community College Daily. “For institutions, greater student success pays off through improved retention, higher enrollment and increased net tuition revenue. Investing in wraparound services designed to support students from low-income and underrepresented backgrounds is not only a moral imperative that improves student outcomes but also a sound financial decision essential to the sustainability of institutions."

Sarah Hicks is an editor and writer with expertise in workforce training and sustainability.