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DALLAS — Daisy Donjuan’s family never saw the value in college. After graduating from high school, she did what was expected of her — dropped education, worked and pitched in at home as her parents did.
So when she enrolled in Dallas College after a five-year break in school, she was left to navigate a dizzying array of options and decisions solo as she sought to train for a job outside of retail management.
The college’s steps to enroll included a checklist that laid bare what Donjuan needed to do, including scheduling an appointment with a success coach.
Success coaches, a more hands-on approach to advising, are Dallas College’s latest effort to demystify the process of obtaining a degree and help its students overcome obstacles along the way.
With her coach’s help, Donjuan created a plan to graduate through the college’s paralegal program. She avoided taking classes that didn’t advance her career and stayed on top of coursework.
“It felt good, the fact that someone is actually checking up on you and that they’re keeping up with you,” Donjuan, 24, said. “They actually care about us succeeding.”
Supporting students — particularly those who come from nontraditional paths — is key as difficult circumstances, unclear pathways to a career and uncertainty about the value of pursuing a college can derail their education, experts say.
About half of Dallas College’s students are first-generation; a little more than 20 percent are parents; and about 22 percent are adult learners who are at least 25 with a full-time job,according to self-reported responses and data from a fall 2022 survey.
Soon, ensuring that students are successful could be even more important as Texas lawmakers want to tie community college funding to outcomes.
Saving the College Dream
This story is part of Saving the College Dream, a collaboration between AL.com, The Associated Press, The Christian Science Monitor, The Dallas Morning News, The Hechinger Report, The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina, and The Seattle Times, with support from the Solutions Journalism Network.
But without purposeful guidance on choosing the right classes or taking advantage of available resources, students can easily get lost and end up “making decisions that don’t get them to a degree,” said Josh Wyner, who leads higher education programs at The Aspen Institute.
In efforts to mitigate the mix of challenges that students encounter, Dallas College leaders invested in a heartier, more intrusive advising nearly three years ago that pairs students with success coaches as research suggests that contact with a significant college staffer is a crucial factor in retention.
Trustees approved $10 million to strengthen the system’s student success infrastructure and nearly doubled its coaching and advising capacity.
Related: More than a third of community college students have vanished
Donjuan’s father, a car salesman, often boasted that he was able to create a business without a high school diploma or degree. Following their lead, she began working at a retail store where she quickly ran out of room for growth after reaching a management position.
Mulling over the sacrifices her father made when he upended his life in Mexico in pursuit of a better life, Donjuan saw this as wasted potential.
“I felt lost,” she said. “I wanted to break that cycle. We can do better than this … we came for a reason.”
Such details about a student’s life and struggles usually aren’t immediately available to success coaches.
That’s why it’s key to ask probing questions that “dig a little deeper” to find the underlying challenges interfering in students’ education, said Garry Johnson, a success coach at Dallas College’s Richland Campus.
“It felt good, the fact that someone is actually checking up on you and that they’re keeping up with you. They actually care about us succeeding.”Daisy Donjuan, Dallas College student
If a student is missing classes due to transportation issues, Johnson can point those who take six credits or more to a free bus pass. Experiencing food insecurity? Here’s the campus’ food pantry. Need last-minute child care? These are the four system campuses that offer flexible assistance.
Success coaches not only provide academic advising or help with financial aid applications, they also anticipate barriers.
“No student should be hungry, homeless or hopeless,” Johnson said. “Our job … is to address the whole student, not just mere academics.”
Students are assigned to one coach, allowing them to develop more meaningful relationships with someone who can help them “navigate the Dallas College maze” without having to bounce around to different people, said Jermain Pipkins, dean of success coaching at the school.
More than 64,500 students are enrolled at Dallas College, and the system employs nearly 240 success coaches who are spread out across its seven campuses. Before the revamp, it had only about 130 advisers.
The coaches are distributed among teams who focus on dual credit high schoolers, older adult learners or traditional students.
“The underlying hope is that these navigators and these coaches help students manage to navigate the inevitable bumps that will come up and be able to persist in their academic studies.”Nikki Edgecombe, a senior research scholar at the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University
If students aren’t ready to open up or feel ashamed to ask for help, that can limit how much the advisers can support them initially, said Lisa Frost, another success coach at Richland. That makes follow up meetings essential.
“Building rapport with a student takes time, and sometimes one session is not going to solve this,” she said.
Overall, enrollment in community colleges has plummeted in recent years. In 2020, as COVID-19 spread across the country, the number of students at Texas community colleges fell by 5.7 percent, or by more than 1.5 million students, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
Nationally, the number has dropped by 37 percent since 2010 — nearly 2.6 million students.
Related: Bachelor’s degrees of community college students stymied by red tape
Getting students to enroll and stay can be a challenge as such schools aren’t typically known for intense advising.
Their student-to-advisor ratio is usually quite high and labor costs are among the biggest barriers for such institutions, said Nikki Edgecombe, a senior research scholar at the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University.
“The underlying hope is that these navigators and these coaches help students manage to navigate the inevitable bumps that will come up and be able to persist in their academic studies,” Edgecombe said.
After Frost coached a student on how to ask her instructor about grades and opportunities to earn extra credit, she knew she’d developed a relationship with her.
The student soon opened up about how she had never been able to speak her own mind with her family, but the advice allowed her to work on her confidence.
“This simple skill alone helped this student overcome a barrier of being shy to ask what she wanted without holding back,” Frost said.
At Dallas College, the student-to-success coach ratio is roughly 350 to one. Some caseloads may be higher or lower depending on the success coach’s role and the type of students they serve.
Related: Trade programs – unlike other areas of higher ed – are in hot demand
Many advocates have said that Texas’ support for community colleges isn’t enough as the schools grow, expand wraparound services and pivot offerings to meet workforce demands.
“Any model that doesn’t fully fund or potentially starve those efforts is gonna run up against challenges,” Edgecombe said. “Institutions will struggle to deliver on their mission.”
Currently, Texas’ community colleges are funded through a blend of local property taxes, student tuition and fees and state contributions.
Lawmakers set aside a fixed amount of money toward public community colleges each biennium. The funds are then distributed to schools based on a complex formula.
At Dallas College, that state support is nearly 20% in the current budget. The bulk of its revenue, almost 60 percent, comes from property and other taxes while tuition and fees make up about 20 percent.
“I was stagnant for a very long time,” she said. “If you want more you have to go for it, it’s not as easy as being comfortable where you are. But it’s worth it.”Kianna Vaughn, Dallas College student
A commission tasked with examining how the state should finance such schools — made up of college officials, business leaders and lawmakers — spent a year reviewing options.
The group released a set of recommendations in November proposing a complete overhaul that would funnel more money to community colleges based on student success.
Those measurable outcomes could include the number of credentials that provide professional skills; credentials awarded in high-demand fields; and transfers to four-year universities.
The related legislation — which has wide bipartisan support across both chambers and is endorsed by the state’s 50 community college districts — was passed by the House last month. Lawmakers have until Memorial Day weekend to send the proposal to Gov. Greg Abbott, who has expressed support for a funding revamp.
The overhaul would require lawmakers to allot roughly $650 million in additional funding toward community colleges every two years, Harrison Keller, Texas’ commissioner of higher education, previously estimated.
Meanwhile, Dallas College leaders say they’re ahead because of how they shifted priorities over the past few years.
Although they’re still committed to getting people in the door and increasing enrollment, there’s a heightened focus on assessing how to keep students on track, college completion and students’ achievements after graduating.
Kianna Vaughn, 28, didn’t immediately enroll in college after graduating from Cedar Hill High School in 2013 because of its sticker price. Although she received an acceptance letter for Texas Southern University, she didn’t qualify for financial aid.
Many of her friends went off to college, which overwhelmed her as education was the only path to success she’d ever heard about.
A well-paying job cushioned Vaughn’s worries for some years, but she noticed younger people were often filling positions above her own. Despite her years of experience, the absence of a degree was preventing her from procuring different opportunities.
After enrolling last year, Vaughn met with a Dallas College success coach who helped her lay out a flexible roadmap that allowed her to juggle school and a full-time job.
“I was stagnant for a very long time,” she said. “If you want more you have to go for it, it’s not as easy as being comfortable where you are. But it’s worth it.”
Now, Vaughn is set to transfer to Jarvis Christian University, a historically Black institution with a Dallas location, starting next year to pursue a bachelor’s degree.
This story about community college advising was produced by The Dallas Morning News, as part of the series Saving the College Dream, a collaboration between Hechinger and Education Labs and journalists at The Associated Press, AL.com, The Christian Science Monitor, The Seattle Times and The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina. Sign up for Hechinger’s higher education newsletter.
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