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College completion rates have stagnated, and lower-income students in particular face long odds of getting to graduation. Two new studies, however, show that low-income students can graduate at high rates when they receive financial and academic supports from external groups.

The research looked at success rates for students who were participants in the Phi Theta Kappa Honors Society and, separately, in the Dell Scholars program. Graduation rates were substantially better for both groups than for their peers.

For example, one study followed 11,000 students who were members of Phi Theta Kappa, which is a large honors and scholarship program for high-achieving community college students. Students were tracked after first joining the honors group in 2008-9. (That recognition is made as early as possible, often during students’ first year of enrollment).

Fully 85 percent of Phi Theta Kappa students earned either an associate or bachelor’s degree within six years, according to the study. And another 7 percent were still enrolled at a four-year institution and working toward a degree -- making for an overall “success” rate of 92 percent.

Likewise, recipients of the Dell scholarship outperformed their peers.

The program provides financial support and individualized advising to low-income students who are pursuing bachelor’s degrees. Recipients were about 25 percent more likely than other students to earn a bachelor’s on time -- and also 25 percent more likely to earn one within six years, according to an independent study released this month.

Phi Theta Kappa and two graduate student researchers from Mississippi State University conducted the study of high-achieving community college students. George Boggs, the former president of the American Association of Community Colleges, also was a co-author. The data came in part from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, which allowed the researchers to track students as they moved across institutions and state borders.

Lynn Tincher-Ladner, Phi Theta Kappa’s president and CEO, said even high-achieving community college students are at risk for not completing. And the reasons often are not academic.

“Even a very smart student may have a fragile support system,” she said.

As a result, it might surprise some that Phi Theta Kappa students in the study outperformed students who first enrolled at four-year institutions in earning bachelor’s degrees -- and the Phi Theta Kappa students had to transfer first.

The six-year bachelor’s completion rate for the study’s group of students was 68 percent. The national six-year rate for students who first enrolled at four-year institutions was 63 percent. While the Phi Theta Kappa students may have had a bit more time, depending on when they joined the honor society, the group of students easily beat the dismal odds of earning a bachelor’s degree community college students face.

Nationwide, about 80 percent of community college students say they eventually want to earn a bachelor’s degree. But recently released data showed that just 38 percent of students who first enrolled at a two-year college earned a degree -- associate or bachelor’s -- within six years. And that rate is declining.

Not Just High Achievers

Even so, an expert on community colleges and transfer issues said the study’s findings weren’t particularly surprising, given that Phi Theta Kappa students need to apply to the honor society and are accepted based in part on their grade point averages.

“So what does that mean for community colleges? That they should console themselves because some students do well even though overall outcomes are subpar?” said Davis Jenkins, a senior research associate at the Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

CCRC recently partnered with Public Agenda and the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program to study the logjam that occurs for many students in the transfer process. Policies at the institutional and program level can be improved, the groups said, to help more students navigate transfer and get to graduation.

“I'm more interested in high-achieving community colleges: colleges that, in partnership with universities, do a better job than expected in enabling students who aren't well prepared and haven't done well in school to transfer and earn bachelor's degrees,” Jenkins said. “We need to identify those colleges and find out how they can serve both high- and low-achieving students.”

The authors of the new completion study, however, said there are lessons to be learned about what works for Phi Theta Kappa members. Those students are more than three times more likely to complete an associate degree within three years than their community-college-student peers, and twice as likely to complete over six years.

The group requires a 3.5 GPA and course loads of at least 12 credits. When the study’s group of students was compared to a control group of students who fit the same criteria, they still were significantly more likely to earn a degree.

Benefits of membership in the honor society include various activities to encourage student engagement, the study said. Those include leadership opportunities, soft-skills professional development and transfer readiness.

The group introduces students to “friends who are going places,” Tincher-Ladner said.

Money Helps

Phi Theta Kappa membership also comes with scholarship money. Students can receive $500 to go toward transfer, with more award money available later.

“When you give a student a financial benefit,” Tincher-Ladner said, “their completion rate goes through the roof.”

Financial aid is also an important part of the Dell Scholars program. The 300 low-income students who receive the award each year, most of whom are first-generation college students, must earn a 2.4 GPA, attend college full time and be eligible to receive a federal Pell Grant during their first year of college.

If selected, Dell recipients get $20,000 in financial support from the program over six years, as well as a laptop, textbook credits, mentoring and access to a private networking group.

“Compared to other scholarship programs, the Dell effort is relatively unique in that it also provides ongoing outreach, close monitoring and assistance to scholars, even though they are geographically dispersed to postsecondary institutions across the U.S.,” wrote the study's authors, Lindsay Page, an assistant professor of research methodology at the University of Pittsburgh; Benjamin Castleman, an assistant professor of education and public policy at the University of Virginia; and Gumilang Sahadewo, a researcher and graduate student at Pitt.

That sort of intervention isn’t cheap, the three wrote. And it would be expensive to provide to large numbers of students.

However, the Dell Scholars program appears to be a fiscally sound investment, the study found. Its authors conducted a fairly simple cost-benefit analysis, and found that the financial benefits -- both in the enhanced earnings of recipients and their tax payments -- tops the program’s costs after 12 years of postcollege earnings.

“While recognizing the many assumptions that we have made,” the authors wrote, “these calculations nevertheless suggest a positive rate of return for the Dell investment in their Dell Scholars program.”

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