The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Higher Education newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Thursday with trends and top stories about higher education. 

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit Northeastern Ohio, it was the National Guardsmen and women who stepped up to save the day. They were deployed to emergency food distribution sites, ran massive vaccine clinics, and even filled in at county jails when there were staffing shortages

These are people who have jobs outside the military, but who report to training one weekend per month and two weeks per year, even in the most uneventful of times. When there is a crisis or disaster, these are the people who drop everything else to serve their communities.

These are people who David Merriman, the director of Cuyahoga County’s Department of Health and Human Services, respects immensely. So when the opportunity arose for the county to help them earn college degrees by offering personalized college coaching, he was eager to support it.

Members of the Ohio National Guard already have access to full college scholarships, but many still don’t graduate. Only about 19 percent of  the state’s National Guard members (about 3,000 of 16,000 total members) have earned a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 22 percent of all National Guard members and about 37 percent of the total U.S. adult population, according to the most recent data from the military and U.S. Census Bureau.

Getting through college as an adult can be a near insurmountable challenge, even without National Guard responsibilities. Often, adult students have jobs and family caretaking responsibilities. They frequently face financial challenges that result in housing, transportation or food insecurity. School is squeezed into whatever space is left in their lives. 

“There’s no cookie cutter intervention here. If there was, we’d be doing it.”

David Merriman, the director of health and human services in Cuyahoga County

Now, Ohio National Guard members who live in or attend college in Cuyahoga County can receive up to four years of free college coaching designed to help them juggle all these competing priorities and graduate.

The program, which began this September, is a countywide pilot run in partnership with education nonprofit InsideTrack to see if giving National Guard members personalized support can help them take advantage of the existing college scholarship.

“Every one of them is going to have a different experience,” Merriman said. “There’s no cookie cutter intervention here. If there was, we’d be doing it.”

The coaching targets student’s individual needs. Some might need help figuring out how to navigate the bureaucracy of higher education or balance all their responsibilities outside the classroom. Others might want someone to bounce career ideas off of and help planning for postgraduation life. And the students can reach their coaches in whatever ways work best for them, whether it’s Zoom, phone calls or texts.

“Getting your degree is hard. Completing is hard, right? And that’s for any normal person,” said Jessica Hector, associate vice president of partner success at InsideTrack, which provides the coaches. “Many times, if a student’s not successful in school, it’s not academics, it’s because of all the other things that kind of come into play that pull you away from your long-term goal.”

Roughly 9,600 Ohio National Guard members, or 60 percent, have only earned a high school diploma or GED. Some of them did attend college but did not graduate.

InsideTrack will initially have the capacity to serve roughly 500 students in the program, Hector said, but might increase that number if there is greater interest. And if the program is successful, Merriman and Hector said they hope the coaching can be offered to National Guard members across the state. 

Right now, funding for the program hinges on whether students continue their classes and earn certificates or degrees.

Only about 19 percent of  the state’s National Guard members (about 3,000 of 16,000 total members) have earned a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 22 percent of all National Guard members and about 37 percent of the total U.S. adult population.

They’re using a “pay for success” model, meaning that InsideTrack is paid for its coaching services by the social impact investment firm Maycomb Capital. If students stay enrolled and graduate, Cuyahoga County pays InsideTrack, which in turn reimburses Maycomb. The hope is that linking payment to outcomes will drive success.

Public-private partnerships can be complicated, Merriman said, and are only worth it if they are developing services that meet residents’ needs. He thinks this program will do just that. 

Merriman, who also serves on the county’s workforce development board, said that members can gain valuable work experiences from their National Guard deployment. Those experiences, when combined with a college degree, can make them attractive candidates for in-demand jobs. The National Guard members who staffed the outdoor food distribution centers during Covid had to have sharp logistics skills and learned how to use machinery to load and unload the donated food. The members who ran the vaccine clinics now have months worth of valuable work experience in medical settings. 

In addition to helping the National Guard members manage their personal, work, service and school responsibilities, Merriman said he thinks it will be valuable for the members to have the support of someone to help them brainstorm how to use those skills in possible careers. 

“These are prime candidates to fill in demand jobs that, frankly, are essential to our community’s economic stability,” Merriman said. “We have to do something that connects these guardsmen to the jobs that really can lead out of these deployment experiences.” 

This story about the Ohio National Guard was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn't mean it's free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.

Letters to the Editor

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information. We will not consider letters that do not contain a full name and valid email address. You may submit news tips or ideas here without a full name, but not letters.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email address. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *