BOSTON — Things were going well for Job Asiimwe as he approached his final semester at Bunker Hill Community College here last winter. Then a toothache almost derailed his college career.
Asiimwe, an immigrant from Uganda who’s been on his own since age 19, was close to graduating. He had been accepted to a bachelor’s-degree program at a college in Vermont and his plan to become a lawyer seemed within reach — until something in his mouth began to throb.
He needed a crown on a tooth that had begun to decay. But the procedure cost $2,000, more than he earned in a month, and it wasn’t covered by insurance. As close as he was to graduation, he considered abandoning his studies so he could earn the money.
Asiimwe was on the verge of becoming one of the surprisingly large number of American college and university students who fail to earn two-year associate degrees within even three years, or four-year bachelor’s degrees within six.
“I don’t think many people know how sometimes just one medical event could affect your life,” said Asiimwe, now 22.
Asiimwe was fortunate. Bunker Hill stepped in and paid for the crown with funds from a pool of foundation money. He finished the semester, graduated in June, and has now begun work on his bachelor’s degree.
“I’ve seen other students drop out, not because they can’t afford tuition, but they can’t afford the other costs of coming to college — rent, health insurance, transportation,” Asiimwe said. “I was lucky.”
More and more American colleges and universities are recognizing that unexpected crises unrelated to academics are pushing people to drop out, especially as the economy stagnates. Under intense pressure from parents, taxpayers and politicians to improve abysmal graduation rates, the colleges are not only assuming a new role in helping their students over the bumps — they’re also keeping a close eye on students and even monitoring social media to detect early signs of trouble.
“Our students are not sheltered from the economic problems of the country,” said Linda Byrd-Johnson, director of the U.S. Department of Education’s TRIO programs, which help low-income, first-generation and disabled college students.
“These kids are just like everybody else,” she said. “Some of them are struggling to make ends meet.”
The “Dreamkeepers” program that helped Asiimwe — underwritten by the Kresge Foundation, the Lumina Foundation for Education and the Walmart Foundation — assists low-income students facing personal emergencies that could derail their graduation plans. Payouts average $500 but can be as small as $11 for a bus pass. (The Lumina Foundation is among the funders of The Hechinger Report, which produced this story.)
Many such interventions have not been around long enough to concretely measure their success, but some have.
A case-management system at Cedar Valley College near Dallas has decreased the dropout rate for students considered at risk from 53 percent to 40 percent, the university says. At Michigan Technological University in the state’s Upper Peninsula, a program started last fall to monitor and support faltering students reduced the number who were on the brink of leaving by 2 percent, according to the university.
Scholarship America, a charity organization that runs Dreamkeepers and other scholarship programs, reports that the proportion of students who stay in school from one semester to the next after getting help from Dreamkeepers is 72 percent, compared with 50 percent for students who don’t receive such help.
“Finances are the number one reason students drop out. It’s not just school finances — it’s life finances,” said Lauren Segal, president and CEO of Scholarship America. “It’s the day-to-day life experiences that are the hurdles students have to get over. And those don’t have to be big things. They can be small things — say, their daycare goes up $100 a month, and that’s the make-or-break number.”
Only 29 percent of community college students earn two-year degrees within three years, according to U.S. Department of Education statistics. At four-year universities, 57 percent of students complete bachelor’s degrees within six years. The Obama administration has called for raising graduation rates substantially by 2020.
But about a third of students entering college today are the first in their families to go to college, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, and a quarter are both first-generation and low-income.
“A lot of the issues that (they) have are life issues, not academic issues,” said Ingrid Washington, vice president of student affairs at Gateway Community and Technical College near Cincinnati.
Gateway loans laptops to students who can’t afford them and accepts donated clothes for them to wear to job interviews or to work.
“They’re so close to the edge, and that’s how they live every day,” Washington said. “Educators used to say, leave your issues at the door. You can’t do that anymore.”
At Mount Hood Community College near Portland, Ore., employees have found students sleeping in campus restrooms or in their cars because they were evicted from their homes. More than half work full or part time. Fewer than 22 percent graduate within three years.
“I don’t think the general public gets it,” said Robert Cox, Mount Hood’s dean of student services. “These are people who are on the fringe. They’re really just trying to get through till they get paid.”
Yet with other public services cut, he added, “There aren’t many other places left for students to turn.”
Mount Hood lets students check out books, laptops and calculators if they can’t afford them, runs a food pantry and provides bus passes for students in emergencies. The cost of one-way bus fare on the local transit system is $2.40.
“Even that could be a deal-breaker for many of these students,” Cox said.
A recent study by researchers at Michigan State University found that minor problems can start a chain of events resulting in students dropping out.
“These small things — just simply having the bus fare, or an unexpected bad grade, or being depressed — are shocks that prompt students to think about quitting,” said Tim Pleskac, a Michigan State psychology professor who directed the study.
This is a particular problem for public universities and colleges, which are increasingly being funded by cash-strapped state governments based not only on how many students they enroll, but on how many end up earning degrees. Dropouts also mean less tuition revenue, and are expensive to replace.
But not all students are comfortable confessing that they can’t afford to ride the bus. So some universities and advocacy groups are taking the next step by developing sophisticated early-warning systems to track them individually. These moves have often come after reports from faculty or campus police about repeat absences or odd behavior, or from messages they monitor on social media.
Chris Rochow, a student at Michigan Tech, was contacted by a dean when his GPA fell to 1.4 in his first semester. He was homesick, missed his girlfriend and was intimidated by lecture classes that were half the size of his entire high school. Administrators enrolled him in a study-skills course.
If they hadn’t, “I definitely don’t think I would be here,” said Rochow, now a sophomore. “I thought, ‘Oh, wow, now they’re watching me.'”
A version of this story appeared on the website of The Washington Monthly on September 18, 2011.