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What if instead of debt relief the White House had instead decided to scale a holistic approach to student success for low-income students at community colleges? The political payoff would be less, but the impact would be far greater.

The single biggest problem facing students from low-income backgrounds is that the return on investment from higher education is too uncertain.

A number of recent Inside Higher Ed pieces detail the ROI crisis. While over all the payoff from a college degree far exceeds the cost, for undergraduates from low-income backgrounds, the benefits are far less certain.

We’re all familiar with the facts:

  • Fewer than 20 percent of those who attend a community college earn an associate degree or a certificate.
  • Fewer than half of those students who successfully transfer from a two-year to a four-year institution complete a bachelor’s degree within six years.
  • A substantial proportion (as much as 40 percent) of those who do earn a degree wind up making no more than those who only received a high school diploma 10 years after enrollment.
  • A very substantial minority of college graduates (41 percent in 2020) don’t work in a field related to their degree.
  • The top quarter of high school graduates outearn those in the bottom quarter, and the top half of high school–only graduates earn about the same as the bottom half of those who attended or graduated from college.

The results: wasted time, effort and money. Sunk opportunity costs. And, in many instances, demoralization, disappointment and disillusionment.

As Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce reported:

“Thirty-one percent of workers with no more than a high school diploma earn more than half of workers with an associate’s degree. Likewise, 28 percent of workers with an associate’s degree earn more than half of workers with a bachelor’s degree and 36 percent of workers with a bachelor’s degree earn more than half of workers with a master’s degree.”

Completion and postgraduation earnings outcomes hinge to a very high degree on a student’s major and the institution attended—and correlate closely with high school GPA, standardized test scores, parental income, remediation requirements, declared major and college credits attempted in the first semester.

Yet we know what to do. It’s as easy as 1, 2, 3.

The solution involves:

  1. Financial supports: Need-based financial aid including tuition waivers, free use of textbooks and free public transportation.
  2. Academic supports: Bridge programs to prepare entering students for success in writing, mathematics and science courses and that include cultural events, team-building exercises and skills-building workshops; ready access to professional academic advisers, tutors, mentors, supplemental instruction and math, science and writing learning-support centers; and enrollment in seminars and linked courses that involve active, experiential and project-based learning and provide regular, substantive feedback from instructors.
  3. Personal supports: Personal, career and financial counseling, skills-building and career development workshops, ready access to professional advisers, transfer and career specialists, counselors and academic coaches.

It’s not rocket science.

Independent, external evaluations of the City University of New York’s ASAP program by MDRC using randomized controlled trials found that ASAP almost doubled graduation rates, from 22 percent to 40 percent, after three years. Replication at community colleges in Ohio showed similar results

The secrets of academic success aren’t an enigma. The 10 pillars of student success are straightforward:

  1. Remove barriers to full-time attendance
  2. Enhance onboarding
  3. Provide a robust first-year experience
  4. Implement data-informed proactive advising
  5. Institute early exposure to career planning
  6. Guarantee access to required courses
  7. Offer comprehensive, coordinated academic, financial, disability, personal and career services
  8. Expand access to classes aligned with students’ career goals that offer active and experiential learning opportunities
  9. Foster a success-oriented mind-set and sense of belonging
  10. Remove institutional obstacles to success (for example, policies that impede credit transfer and course schedules that conflict with students’ work and caregiving responsibilities).

Other steps that can raise graduation rates and promote postcollege success include completion grants, access to graduation concierges (to expedite completion), mandatory advising, tutoring and career counseling, scholarships to cover the cost of enrolling in courses offered during the summer or semester breaks, seamless credit transfer, co-enrollment in two- and four-year institutions, and expanded access to workforce credentialing programs.

What works successfully at community colleges can also work at broad-access four-year institutions.

Currently, much of the discussion of innovation focuses on faster, cheaper alternatives to traditional degrees, including apprenticeships, stackable nondegree certificates and competency-based and individualized, self-paced, self-directed programs.

For some students, these may well be desirable options. But lower cost, in and of itself, ought not be our goal. Most students, I am convinced, need something more:

  • Intensive interaction with a scholar-teacher and classmates.
  • Regular, substantive feedback from a subject area specialist and peers.
  • Active, project- and team-based learning, including discussion and debate and peer critique.
  • Skills development in the areas of written and oral communication, numeracy and critical thinking.
  • Three-hundred-and-sixty-degree support, including intensive academic, financial, personal and career advising.

A recent report by the Community College Resource Center sums up its most recent findings. It recommends:

  • Helping every entering student identify a pathway of interest.
  • Providing every new student with an individualized degree map.
  • Making sure that all students have access to a clearly and intentionally designed program of study aligned with their interests and career aspirations.
  • Better preparing students to be effective learners in all their courses, not just math and composition.
  • Scheduling courses and revising traditional academic calendars to better accommodate students’ work and family responsibilities.
  • Giving all students the opportunity to take courses on topics of interest from the start.
  • Embedding active and experiential learning in all degree pathways.
  • Ensuring that every student receive an individualized degree map.
  • Connecting to an academic and career community for example, through a meta-major or learning community that cuts across department divides.
  • Monitoring student progress and intervening proactively when students are off-track.

Expensive? Yes. But the cost is much lower than the perhaps $1 trillion of one-time debt relief that the Biden administration recently proposed. It’s also forward-facing: ensuring that future students will be more likely to achieve the benefits of a college degree.

Programs like ASAP offer evidence-based, cost-efficient solutions to a host of challenges: the completion challenge, the time-to-degree challenge, the transfer challenge and the postgraduation ROI challenge. These programs should serve as our lodestar.

If we are truly serious about equity and closing attainment gaps, we know what to do. Let’s just do it.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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