Has One Million Degrees Found the Secret to Community College Success?
Updated at 8:14 a.m.
Naudiah Calbert missed the first day of class during her second semester of college last January.
She had a good excuse: She was giving birth to her daughter.
But balancing a newborn and her studies was a struggle.
"I was about a week behind and I just stayed behind and never got back on track," Calbert said.
That's when her advisor at Wright College, one of the seven City Colleges of Chicago, suggested she apply to a program run by the nonprofit, One Million Degrees. It provides extra supports to students, such as tutoring, professional networking help and stipends. The organization also helped Calbert plan out how she would reach her goals of graduating with an associate's degree in chemistry and working as a forensic scientist in a police department.
Calbert was assigned a coach who checked in with her regularly, and the stipends helped as she took care of her child. She also attended events with professionals who provided feedback on her networking skills and made connections with future employers. Calbert has supportive parents, but she said it was helpful to have someone outside her family looking out for her. Sometimes, she said, it's harder to ask those closest to you for help.
"You wanna make people around you who are very close to you proud," Calbert said. "It's helpful in that way to have someone who is not a family member care as well."
Early results from a University of Chicago Poverty Lab study of One Million Degrees' program released Thursday show many students like Calbert are benefiting. It found that participating in One Million Degrees significantly boosts the odds that students stay enrolled in community college during their first year.
The Poverty Lab randomly selected students from an applicant pool to participate in the program and tracked their progress compared to students who were eligible but weren't offered a spot. Students must be enrolled full-time, qualify for federal Pell Grants and have at least a 2.0 GPA to qualify.
Two years later, preliminary findings show participating in the One Million Degrees program are 35% more likely to enroll full time that first year in the program compared to eligible students not in the program and 47% more likely to continue from one semester to the next as a full-time student.
"These are early indicators of college graduation," said Carmelo Barbaro, executive director of the Poverty Lab. "We're really excited at the possibility that these comprehensive supports ... help students who are working hard and are bright but have complex lives to graduate and reap the benefits that we all hope will come from getting a college education."
Students in the study attend all seven of the City Colleges and Harper College in suburban Palatine. The study will continue to track graduation and job placement rates for the students over the next six years.
Meeting students where they are
This data supports a growing body of national research that community college students benefit from multiple, wraparound supports to help them overcome barriers as they pursue an associate's degree. That includes findings from a study on the City University of New York's ASAP program, which provides comprehensive supports including tuition waivers, career counseling and transportation stipends.
"Even an individual scholar is going to need different things at different points along their journey," said Paige Ponder, executive director of One Million Degrees. "You can't surgically provide only the thing the person needs in that moment because it changes too quickly."
The study includes high school seniors planning to enroll in community colleges and already-enrolled community college students.
While already-enrolled community college students were more likely to agree to participate in One Million Degrees than high school graduates, high school graduates who did enroll outperformed their community college peers. According to the results, students coming directly from high school were twice as likely to enroll in the next semester in the first year and 82 to 85% more likely to enroll full time in community college than students who weren't in the program.
Ponder said those early results were an unexpected surprise.
"Once a [high school] student applies and gets a slot, we then kick into gear and they start getting regular calls from us and personal attention," Ponder said. "All of that activity, which we just considered a means to an end to get folks into our program, seems to be actually having a significant impact on whether students ultimately enroll in college at all."
While these findings show One Million Degrees is having success, it's unclear how this program would benefit all students at City Colleges, especially ones who may not be motivated to apply for the program or may enter community college and struggle with college-level work.
"We cannot infer from this study that students not meeting the eligibility criteria would benefit in the exact same way or to the same degree from the same services," said Barbaro.
Ponder at One Million Degrees argues the threshold for qualifying is fairly low and they want to remove as many barriers to entry as possible. Next fall, the nonprofit is starting a pilot program that will serve part-time students, expanding these services to even more students on campus.
Kate McGee covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @WBEZeducation and @McGeeReports.
Correction: This story was changed to reflect updated numbers from a study researcher on how much more likely students coming from high school and participating in the program were to enroll in community college full time.