A new study of three Ohio community colleges, including Lorain County Community College recommends students receive more support services . Credit: Lorain County Community College

Community colleges can be more affordable and accessible than their four-year peers. But national three-year graduation rates clock in at only about 29% for those first-time students attending full-time. It takes most community college students longer than two years to graduate.

That’s important. Earning a degree or certificate can influence many things, like a person’s lifetime earnings and even their health. 

Offering students more support services as they navigate higher education could have a big impact on making it to graduation and earning money. That’s one of the takeaways from a new long-term analysis centering the experiences of three Ohio institutions, including Cuyahoga Community College and Lorain County Community College. 

Tri-C and LCCC, along with Cincinnati State Technical and Community College, put programs in place modeled after an offering from the City University of New York.

The Accelerated Study in Associate Programs, or ASAP, model gives students “up to three years of financial, academic, and personal support and services that address multiple barriers to student success,” according to the report from MDRC, a nonprofit organization that  evaluates educational programs.  

The Ohio programs were first offered in 2015. Two additional groups came together in the following years. To be part of the programs – called “Degree in Three” at Tri-C and “Students Accelerating in Learning” at LCCC  – students had to meet a few requirements. 

A new study of three Ohio community colleges, including Tri-C recommends students receive more support services Credit: Jeff Haynes / Signal Cleveland

The list included being eligible for Pell Grants meaning they had to have what the federal government describes as “exceptional” financial needs. The majority of community college students are women and/or people of color. Their average age is 27 years old. More than half enroll in classes part-time.  

Other criteria included attending a three-year program full time and taking remedial classes as needed, the report noted. 

Participants were put into two groups to track progress at each college. The spots were assigned via a lottery system, the study said. A control group received no supports, while those involved in the program got additional boosts like:

  • Waivers to cover tuition gaps
  • Enhanced advising, tutoring and career development services 
  • Financial help for textbooks
  • Gift cards for gas and/or groceries 

Students were tracked over the next six years. The study’s authors found: 

  • 44% of students who received those supports earned a degree, about 15 percentage points higher than those who didn’t
  • More students in the support programs went on to get a bachelor’s degree
  • Though roughly an equal percentage of students from both groups were employed, those getting additional guidance earned about $2,000 more than those who didn’t 

“Student participants at Tri-C often voiced the significance of the wrap-around services and personal support they received; it was the difference between dropping out or finishing their educational goals,” Miria Batig, Tri-C’s associate dean of Health Careers and Sciences and the former program director of this initiative, said in a news release. “And the earnings data demonstrate the programs’ continued impact on the community and workforce needs of the area.”

The findings noted two limitations. They could only track the Incomes of students who stayed in Ohio after graduation. And several of the years studied were during the COVID-19 pandemic. Given the pandemic’s effects, about 20% of participants are still enrolled in classes, and those extra years could impact graduates’ earnings. 

But ultimately, the authors note, these results from Ohio are “promising.”

“These findings represent a new and important contribution to the growing body of evidence on comprehensive approaches to improve the educational – and now economic – outcomes of students from low-income backgrounds,” they wrote.

Amy Morona covers higher education for Signal Cleveland, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for Signal Cleveland in partnership with Open Campus.