Getting a higher education is often the first step in increasing one’s economic mobility. Having a postsecondary degree offers more opportunities for employment, as well as higher lifetime earnings than those without a degree.

Students seek out education as a means to increase their earning potential, and this is why many students of low-income socioeconomic status see college as a crucial step to achieving their goals and achieving financial stability. However, the challenges that college students with low incomes face can be debilitating to degree progress and attainment.

Food and housing insecurity, transportation challenges, and a host of external responsibilities, such as working full time to provide for family members, can all lead low-income students to stopping out of school. To combat these obstacles, some schools have targeted their resources to address concerns around low-income student success.

Specialized programs that offer support in critical areas have shown to increase enrollment among low-income students, maintain degree progress and completion, and further employment opportunities after graduation. Read on for a detailed look at two evidence-backed programs that provide a model for how to support low-income students along the path to graduation and degree attainment.

Project QUEST

Project QUEST is an organization aimed at helping low-income students complete job-focused higher education programs and become gainfully employed. The program provides a variety of support services to students, including financial assistance, developmental instruction, counseling, and job placement assistance.

Average Annual Earnings for Project QUEST and Non-Participants

Source: Project QUEST, Nine Year Gains: Project QUEST’s Continuing Impact, April 2019.

To evaluate the success of the services they provide, a third-party research firm assessed the earnings, educational attainment, and public benefits usage of Project QUEST participants over roughly nine years. They found that students who completed the program saw long-term gains in wages and employment. On average, participants were earning over $5,000 more than the control group annually and experiencing a 15 percent higher level of year-round employment.

City University of New York’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs

In 2007, the City University of New York (CUNY) launched Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP). The initiative aimed to improve graduation rates among low-income students by providing services such as tutoring and individual advising, and financial assistance with public transportation, textbooks, and tuition.

CUNY ASAP: Earned Any Degree

Source: MDRC, The Power of Fully Supporting Community College Students: The Effects of the City University of New York’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs After Six Years, October 2017.

A random control trial conducted at CUNY found that program participants had a graduation rate of 40 percent after three years (nearly double that of their control group at 22 percent). On top of that, the rate was still 10 percentage points higher than the control group after six years (51 percent versus 41 percent). The CUNY program and its services provided to students both increased graduation rates and helped students graduate at a faster rate.

Implementations of CUNY’s ASAP model in Ohio

In 2014, the ASAP model was replicated by three Ohio community colleges—Cincinnati State Technical and Community College, Cuyahoga Community College, and Lorain County Community College. MDRC, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization, studied the implementations at each school.

In MDRC’s evaluation, the Ohio implementation of ASAP found similar results to CUNY. Retention rates, credit accumulation, and graduation rates were all significantly higher among program participants as compared to the control groups. As with the CUNY ASAP, the Ohio ASAP saw the graduation rate nearly double among program participants compared to the control group after three years (35 percent versus 19 percent).

Program participants also transferred to four-year institutions at higher rates than their peers in the control group (18 percent versus 12 percent).

Key takeaways

The evaluations of the programs above demonstrate that providing the following services as a package to low-income students can increase their chances for success both during and after graduation:

  • Assistance with nontuition costs of attendance including transportation and textbooks
  • Remedial instruction and tutoring
  • Job placement assistance
  • Individual academic advising

There are significantly higher costs associated with implementing a program like ASAP, which can cost up to $4,500 per student. However, the studies discussed present real benefits gained and can help inform conversations about costs and return on investment.

Get even more insights from Trellis’ 2021 State of Student Aid report

For more findings and data related to student success, check out Trellis’ newly released State of Student Aid and Higher Education in Texas report, now available to view and download. The report offers key insights in areas including demographic projections, college preparedness, college costs, student loan repayment outcomes, and higher education policy. A mobile-friendly format is also available for those on the go.

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