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Grants help explore ways to get more ‘near completers’ across the college finish line

Saint Paul College and Concordia University have received grant funding to implement added supports for students facing barriers to graduation.

With the assistance of some additional scholarships, Pakhoua Vang says she was able to pay off the majority of her tuition and is now looking to continue her studies at the University of St. Thomas.
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs

For Pakhoua Vang, 21, the transition from Como Park Senior High in St. Paul to Concordia University was fairly simple. The campus sat just three miles southwest of her alma mater, where she’d participated in a program called College Possible that had helped her prepare for the ACT exam and apply for scholarships. Plus, she already knew a lot of students on campus, she says. Then, her freshman year, she was assigned an adviser who met with her a couple of times each month to talk about things like what major she was interested in pursuing, what scholarships she could apply for, how her studies were going and what she wanted to get out of her college experience. Along the way, she acquired a faculty adviser who served as a mentor as well.

This spring, she’ll be completing her degree in international studies with a minor in Hmong studies. She spent an entire year studying abroad in South Korea and is currently serving as president of the Hmong and Global Student clubs.

But Vang says the start of her senior year was marked by a period of financial uncertainty that made her question whether she’d even be able to complete her degree. After her parents’ housing situation changed, she no longer qualified for some of the financial aid she’d been relying on.  

“I had to quickly find jobs that would adjust to my schedule,” she says, noting that even with two on-campus jobs at 15 hours a week, she wasn’t able to cover her tuition.

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In her moment of crisis, she was referred to a faculty member who oversees a small pot of emergency funds that help students weather unexpected roadblocks to graduation. With the assistance of some additional scholarships, Vang says she was able to pay off the majority of her tuition and is now looking to continue her studies at the University of St. Thomas.

Near derailment in the home stretch

Traditionally, there’s been a lot of focus on the barriers students face in accessing college and then in persevering through their first year. However, students like Vang — who seemingly sail through that initial year, but then come up against a barrier that threatens to derail them when they’re on the home stretch — are garnering more attention as well.

In an effort to support students who have completed at least three quarters of their program requirements but are at risk of dropping out, two Minnesota postsecondary institutions — Saint Paul College and Concordia University, in St. Paul — have received grant funding to implement added supports for these “near completers,” with a focus on low-income students and students of color in programs that feed into high-demand careers.

“There are a lot of supports designed to help students get acclimated to college. But there’s sort of this perception that once they get half way or to the three-quarter mark, that students have figured it out and they don’t need a lot of support,” said Amy Kerwin, vice president of community investments for Great Lakes Higher Education Guaranty Corporation and Affiliates, which awarded the grants. “What we learned was that — especially for at-risk students — they were dropping out pretty close to the finish line. Of course, that meant they had accumulated the most student debt. And when they left, they probably weren’t going to get a position that would allow them to service that student loan debt that they had accumulated.”

Focusing on institutional barriers

Many of the personal barriers — namely those tied to financial challenges — that prevent students from completing a program can strike no matter how far along they are in their studies, Kerwin points out. For instance, students from low-income families that have maxed out on their financial aid options and then get hit with additional child-care expenses or a car-repair bill often can’t surmount the additional $200 to $400 blow to their student budget.

But there are a handful of barriers that seem to be unique to “near completers” that don’t necessarily involve money. These tend to be more institutional in nature, and they’re the ones Kerwin is most intent on addressing.

Saint Paul College
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Saint Paul College has received grant funding to implement added supports for these “near completers.”

“We really wanted to partner with those colleges that did that self reflection and thought, ‘Gee, this is an area that maybe we’re making things harder than they need to be,’ ” she said. “I think that’s hard work. So many of these things focus on ‘fixing’ the student. We really wanted to look at: Are there things colleges and universities can do to address things from their end?”

Poor scheduling; time limits

Sometimes it’s as basic as poor scheduling. If there are a limited number of seats available in a particular class that’s required of students looking to complete their degree and they don’t get in, they’re forced to make a tough decision about whether they can afford to remain a student longer than anticipated.

For other students, the need to formally declare their intent to graduate may not be intuitive. Or after slowly chipping away at a program while working and taking care of a family, some students run into issues with time limits set on certain requirements meant to ensure students are graduating with the most up-to-date, relevant industry training and knowledge.

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In total, Great Lakes Higher Education Guaranty Corporation & Affiliates awarded $2.6 million to 14 colleges in five states to close completion gaps on their campuses now through July 1, 2019. All applicants analyzed their student data and submitted a plan for interventions they want to implement and measure for effectiveness. Friends of Saint Paul College, the nonprofit organization supporting Saint Paul College, received $200,000 to complete this work at Saint Paul College and Concordia University received $199,575.

“It was very clear that these applications had wide support from faculty, from staff, and that they had put a lot of time and effort in terms of cross-campus collaboration in looking wide and deep in addressing these issues,” Kerwin said of both Minnesota recipients.

Saint Paul College

At Saint Paul College, the grant funds will be used to pilot a fundamental shift in the way advising is done. At-risk students in three programs — business management, accounting and human resources — will work closely with a designated pathway adviser, who will help them plan out everything from course selection and how to graduate in a timely manner to how to access additional resources like career counseling and internship opportunities.

Traditionally, first-year students are given contact information for a faculty adviser, depending on the program, and transfer advisers work with those who enroll later on. But this existing self-service model has been identified as an institutional barrier to student success, says Mike Ojibway, associate dean of student success.

In a few weeks, he says, they’ll be rolling out the new advising model. They’re in the midst of hiring one full-time pathway adviser with a business program emphasis to work with students from these three programs. And over the course of the next two years, they’ll scale up to about a dozen pathway advisers total.

“That’s all tied to the institutional barrier, which was lack of coordinated, integrated advising resources for students beyond program faculty,” Ojibway said.

Many of the students they serve in these three programs are enrolled part-time, with an average age of 29, because they are working to support themselves, and sometimes a family as well. Across these three programs, Ojibway says, 90 percent of students currently enrolled are low-income, Pell-grant-eligible; and 70 percent are both low-income and students of color.

All three 60-credit programs equip students with an associate’s degree that they can either use to secure a high-demand job — in fields with a projected industry growth through 2020 and in need of a more diverse work core — or transfer to a four-year college to continue their studies. Program completion rates indicate at-risk students in these three programs are in need of some added interventions.

According to recent figures, Ojibway says the 150 percent completion rate — meaning those who complete all 60 required credits in the span of three years — for students in the accounting program was only 14.9 percent, 6.8 percent for human resources and 6.1 percent for business management.

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Mike Ojibway
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Mike Ojibway says the existing self-service model has been identified as an institutional barrier to student success.

Based on information collected from student surveys and focus groups, Ojibway says they’ve identified a few other key institutional barriers to program completion that they’ll be working to address through the new pathway advising model and possibly other changes. One common issue is the limited availability of courses; this inhibits some students from graduating on time because they need to wait until it’s offered again. Some are forced to search for employment before completing their degree and never come back to finish it. Others may choose to stay enrolled and take courses outside of their major, not realizing their Pell funding has a lifetime limit that they could hit before completing their program.

Another barrier is the time limit set on certain technical courses, which expire after five years.

“Many students do get themselves in a scenario [where they’re] only taking one to two classes a semester. It can take a while to accumulate 60 credits. For some, they may have to retake a course,” Ojibway explained.

Regardless of these program and policy-related barriers, he adds, there’s a fourth bucket of barriers that encompass any number of unexpected personal or life challenges. These are typically resolved with emergency financial support that can help a student surmount unforeseen child-care costs, transportation costs or more. Some of the grant funding will be put toward an emergency fund for retention grants, which will be matched through a $5,000 contribution from Friends of Saint Paul College.

Concordia University

At Concordia University, a more intentional, comprehensive advising model will be piloted this fall that will seek to help “near completers” avoid many of the same pitfalls: running into a scheduling conflict where a required course is full or not offered a certain semester, exhausting their financial aid before they complete their program, and more.

Bruce Corrie, professor of economics and associate vice president of university relations, says they’ll be identifying 120-140 at-risk students enrolled in business and science programs — two programs that feed into high-demand career fields, but could do a better job of seeing students through to completion. For instance, in 2014, Corrie says the university’s year-to-year retention rates for minority students in business programs who had completed 75 percent of their coursework was 85 percent.

“In our grant period we want to increase it to 88 percent or more. This will place our minority student retention rates on par with overall retention rates for business students,” he said.

During the 2010-16 period, 86 minority students dropped out of the university even though they had completed most of their coursework. “We want to change that through this comprehensive strategy that will help catch these students before they fall through the cracks,” Corrie added. “We will achieve that by helping students develop a plan for a clear pathway towards graduation and provide them the mentoring and support services needed for successful and timely graduation.”

Each student will be assigned two main points of contact. An academic adviser will help evaluate their plan for graduation, keep an eye on their financial situation and troubleshoot when need be, and make sure they’re taking the necessary steps to set themselves up for employment once they’ve completed their program. A faculty mentor will help guide students through as well, serving as an additional advocate for students and someone who can help write letters of recommendation with more of a personal touch.

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Grant funds will be used to employ a coordinator to oversee everything, give small stipends to faculty mentors and provide emergency grants for students in need of one extra financial boost. Serving as the coordinator of the program, Corrie will be tracking outcomes to see how this might be scaled up to benefit students from the time they enroll through to program completion, campus-wide.

Bruce Corrie
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Bruce Corrie says Concordia University’s year-to-year retention rates for minority students in business programs who had completed 75 percent of their coursework was 85 percent.

An added element that sets the Concordia University model apart from the Saint Paul College model is an emphasis on creating a more “culturally intelligent” learning environment as a strategy for engaging minority students who might otherwise be at risk of dropping out. They are more likely to slip through the cracks when they don’t feel they can approach their professors outside of class or ask questions in class, he said.

“To have a professor who understands them and is able to relate to them — that, I think, is missing very often for minority students. In a typical classroom, they feel that nobody cares for the issue that is important for them,” Corrie said, noting that, for instance, he makes a point to talk about ethnic markets and entrepreneurship in the economics courses he teaches.

Excited to start implementing and monitoring the impact of this new intervention framework for near completers, Corrie says he’s already reached out to the grant coordinators at Saint Paul College to see how they might collaborate, whether it be through offering Saint Paul College students a four-year plan to continue their studies at Concordia or sharing findings on what works.

“In effect, we could do something that the grant really does not call for, but we’re developing synergies between programs,” he said.