Can the right kind of student supports bring students back to college and turn around enrollment declines?

For Cindy Persaud, a senior at New York City’s Lehman College who transitioned there from Bronx Community College, the answer is an emphatic yes. Persaud, who is studying business administration, benefitted from the City University of New York system’s ASAP program, which helped her cover not only the cost of tuition, but also other basic financial needs.

“The reimbursements for metro cards and textbooks were the most helpful,” she said. Thanks to the robust support, she’s been able to gain work experience and network through an internship at a real estate firm instead of picking up a less rewarding service job.

Even more helpful, Persaud said, is the support of her CUNY ASAP advisor, who helped her with much more than career advising. The empathy and understanding shown by her advisor, she said, was “the support system I needed.”

A recent Strada Education Network report, “Powering Purpose,” highlights exemplary programs, including CUNY ASAP, that bring students back to the classroom by demonstrating that the schools can help students complete their degrees and connect to careers.

Several postsecondary education leaders gathered in a recent InsideTrack-hosted webinar to discuss the difference those student supports can make. This “Presidents Roundtable” webinar, moderated by Strada Managing Director of Research Janet Salm, brought together leaders of several institutions highlighted as exemplars in the report: Scott Ralls, president of North Carolina’s Wake County Technical College; Anette Parker, president of Minnesota’s South Central College; Ruth Bauer White, president of Strada affiliate InsideTrack; and Earl Buford, president of Strada affiliate CAEL.

Potential engines of economic growth and social mobility, community colleges have nevertheless seen their enrollments decline as thousands of eligible students have become disconnected from education, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, research from Strada’s recent “Powering Purpose” report shows demand for community colleges’ postsecondary education offerings remains high

Community colleges across the country saw their enrollments dip because of the pandemic, especially among students of color and working adults. But as noted in “Powering Purpose,” demand for the education they provide is still high, and the challenge for leaders like Ralls and Parker is bringing back stopped-out students and helping them complete.

Key to those efforts is a combination of the right outreach and the right types of supports. Echoing Persaud’s comments about the importance of schools supporting students’ basic financial needs, White spoke to her own history as a first-generation college student.

“I was so focused on getting there, what it took to stay wasn’t something I understood,” she said. As for students currently stopped out, White said covering those basic needs is critical: “If you can’t feed your children, you can’t think about returning to school.” 

Speaking to food insecurity in particular, Parker explained how her institution enables students to access food supports through a semi-anonymous electronic locker system that allows them to receive aid in a dignified manner.

The common thread that each of the presidents spoke to was the importance of linking education offerings to career outcomes. Buford commented that through credit for prior learning and work-based learning experiences, students are becoming more interested in continuing their formal education as well. But they also are laser-focused on their economic goals.

Ralls agreed: They’re coming through us to get where they want to go.” He said program pathways offered by community colleges should function more like a “ladder” that elevates students to their career or their next degree. 

This experience was certainly true for Persaud. Her journey took her from community college to a four-year institution, and she plans to work in accounting after she graduates. As postsecondary institutions across the country recover from the pandemic, insights from education leaders as well as students on their educational journeys can guide others to success.