A Cure for the Community-College Blues

A rural community college helps its students learn the financial skills to stay in school.

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Yes my baby taken sick on July twenty-nine,
Yes the one I love she taken sick on July twenty-nine.

Her doctor billed her four hundred dollars,

And I didn’t have but three hundred and ninety nine

–
–Sonny Boy Williamson

Every day on KFFA 1360 in Helena, Arkansas, “Sunshine” Sonny Payne introduces “ King Biscuit Time,” broadcasting the Delta Blues to listeners across the region.  While most of the songs come from musicians long gone, such as former Helena residents Sonny Boy Williamson and Robert Lockwood, Jr, the sentiments of hard times remain all too present for the citizens of Phillips County, a community of 22,000 on the banks of the Mississippi River.

Along with much of the Mississippi Delta, Phillips County faces severe economic distress: The second lowest median household income in the state, $24,427, only 64% of Arkansas’ median; a poverty rate of 34%, nearly double the state’s average; and an educational attainment level that bodes ill for the future.  In 2009, fewer than 21% of Phillips County residents held a degree past high school. 

In this difficult situation sits Phillips Community College of the University of Arkansas (PCCUA).  Like many rural community colleges, PCCUA assumes the multiple missions of educating the region’s citizens, training private industry’s workforce, and attempting to do it all on a shoestring budget.  A prime focus now is also teaching students financial management so that they can stay in school and get the degrees they need to find jobs in a declining economy.

PCCUA operates the Center for Working Families, an initiative started with funding from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, to provide integrated services to individuals in a variety of community-based settings. The idea is to offer a combination of financial literacy training and intensive financial coaching along with education and skills training to ensure that the students who set foot on the Helena campus are able to stay in school and move toward a degree or a job-qualifying credential.

PCCUA and other institutions are concentrating on financial management because retention rates at community colleges across the country are low.  Only 20 percent of incoming students to community colleges will graduate within three years, and 54 percent will never complete a degree at all.  At PCCUA, faculty members report that financial problems often are the primary reasons that students drop out.

PCCUA’s Center for Working Families targets some of the most vulnerable students by developing a finance curriculum in tandem with students’ academic path.  Financial literacy training is tied into a two-semester Student Success Class that accompanies Freshman English 1.  The first component of the class covers the basics of financial literacy before moving on to teach students to build assets and increase their wealth.

Monica Quattlebaum, a business instructor at the college who helped design the school’s financial literacy curriculum, says the program was desperately needed in the community.

“Our students struggle financially,” she says.  “They depend upon student aid.  They come from poverty-based homes.  They never have had people show them what to do with money.  They can’t think about tomorrow because they are thinking about today.  Most of our drop-out problems were related to money.”

In a community facing such economic uncertainty, the notion of financial training took a while to gain acceptance.

“Students often have no idea that they need financial education,” said Deborah Gentry, an employability coordinator with the school’s Career Pathways program.   “Many times they say, ‘I never have any money, so I don’t need to think about how to keep track of it.’”

Even so, “financial literacy often turns out to be their favorite part [of Student Success],” said Debbie Hardy, the school’s director of assessment and institutional effectiveness.

The work of the Center for Working Families goes beyond classroom training.  College staffers work one-on-one with students to offer advice and guidance on how to manage their money.  Coaches help students access and use resources, both at the college and in the community, including transportation and child care assistance. Coaches also can make arrangements for academic tutoring.

“We have to make them realize that they can be successful,” said Shawndus Gregory, the outreach coordinator for Career Pathways.  “That I [the coach] am your ‘go-to’ person.”   Kim Rawls, director of the school’s Career Pathways program agreed:  “The quality of the [coaching] relationship is what really matters.”

The coaching also extends into developing so-called soft skills that are often vital in helping students not only find jobs but embark on careers.

“When we work with students, we help them understand how things really work with interviewing with an employer or keeping a job,” said Dr. Debby King, vice chancellor for instruction.  “We show them the hidden rules made obvious.  We have to teach them to navigate the system.” 

The Center for Working Families initiative has also spurred the college to do some educating of its own employees.  PCCUA staged “poverty simulation” exercises with all faculty and staff to help them more fully realize the limitations that students can experience when coming from an impoverished background.

“One of the most important things for us is that most of the educators have a middle-class background,” King said. “We may forget how difficult it is for our students to succeed.”

Robert Donnan
Debby King, Phillips’s vice chancellor for instruction, leads an orientation of new students. The Helena, Arkansas, community college is working to resolve the non-academic problems that induce too many students to drop out before they graduate.

Succeeding in a small town such as Helena can be especially difficult.  For many students, finding good jobs or establishing careers in their chosen fields can require relocating to a bigger city, such as Little Rock or Memphis, each a considerable distance from Helena.  Yet Helena is where these students have access to family and friends who have been their support system while they pursued their degrees, often providing childcare and sharing living quarters.  It’s not an easy decision to move away, even when local economic opportunities are limited.

Ultimately, though, administrators and students alike are confident that the program is making a difference in the lives of students and the community.

“If you are interested in doing good, Helena is small enough so that you can have a visible impact,” said Steven Murray, the school’s chancellor. “We’re creating a critical mass of young people who come here and want to make a difference.”

Dan Broun is a program director at MDC, a Durham based nonprofit managing a network of community colleges operating the Center for Working Families initiative.  Robert Donnan is a North Carolina-based consultant who is collaborating on a documentation study on the Center for Working Families approach. See their final report here.

 

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