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community college low-income students
A single mother holds her son while she waits to receive her diploma during her graduation ceremony from college. Credit: Getty Images

Low-income parents in an Arkansas program are earning college degrees and certificates at twice the rate of other community college students, a new report shows.

The program is remarkable for its low cost and impressive results with groups of students who have traditionally struggled, which could allow other states to adopt Arkansas’ model.

The Arkansas Career Pathways Initiative (CPI) started 11 years ago and has enrolled close to 30,000 low-income, mostly single parents. The program provides academic and career counseling as well as financial assistance for needs such as childcare, transportation or books and supplies.

“I knew the results would be good,” said Collin Callaway, chief operations officer at Arkansas Community Colleges, “but I was surprised how much better we were doing than the general community college group. I was kind of just hoping to keep up with them.”

Participants must be eligible for the federal welfare program TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), which funds the initiative. Most are single parents and 89 percent are women. Nationally, only about 28 percent of single mothers earn a degree within six years, a recent study found.

Related: With number of student-parents up, availability of campus child care is down

Between 2006 and 2013, 52 percent of CPI participants earned a certificate or a degree, compared with 24 percent of community college students who weren’t in the program, the foundation-funded independent study found.

“I think it would benefit the entire community college population,” said Callaway. “I don’t know why it wouldn’t be scalable to other colleges in other states.”

Case managers, who have between 40 and 80 students each, start with an assessment of a student’s skills, weaknesses and career goals. They can also give out gas vouchers to help get to and from school, or fund the purchase of a stethoscope, work boots or the cost of a license exam, which for nurses can run up to $450.

“So many things can get in the way of a single mom being successful,” said Katherine Boswell, the project manager at College Count$, which wrote the report, released last week. “But more than just money, the case manager becomes the student’s advocate, someone to talk and strategize with.”

The average cost is $1,500 per student per year, said Boswell. The program enrolls between 3,500 and 5,000 students in any given year and costs about $7 million annually, said Callaway.

About 65 percent of the participants are white, 30 percent are African-American and about 5 percent are Latino or Asian.

Related: Number of single moms in college doubled in 12 years, so why aren’t they graduating?

The report’s authors found that African-American and Latino participants made some of the largest gains. Forty-five percent of African-American CPI participants earned a degree or certificate, compared with 17 percent of African-American community college students in Arkansas overall, between 2005 and 2013. There were far fewer Latino participants, but 56 percent of them earned a degree, compared with 14 percent of Latino community college students overall.

CPI participants who enrolled in 2011 earned an average of $3,176 per year than other TANF recipients. The increased earnings led to an estimated savings of more than $90 million in decreased public assistance payments over ten years. When combined with increased tax revenues, the report calculated a 179 percent return on the state’s initial investment in the program.

The program was launched in 2006 by then Governor Michael Huckabee, a Republican. The next two governors, a Democrat and another Republican, also  supported it. Similarly, the Arkansas legislature has switched from Democratic to Republican control over the past 10 years, but the program has enjoyed broad support.

“I think it’s just because it’s clear that it works,” said Callaway.

Legislators would like to dedicate more TANF funds, but are hamstrung by the workforce participation requirements of the federal program. A state can lose its funding if it doesn’t have roughly 50 percent of its participants engaged in a workforce-related activity, and CPI doesn’t qualify as that. This means the state can’t put more TANF funding into the program, even though legislators believe it is actually growing the workforce in a meaningful and long-term way.

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