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KERA's One Crisis Away project focuses on North Texans living on the financial edge.

Community College Students Paired With Mentors Are Less Likely To Drop Out

Courtney Collins
KERA news
Lisa Schellenberg knocked out four semesters at Tarrant County College thanks to a "navigator" from Catholic Charities Fort Worth.

Fewer than 40 percent of community college students get a degree within six years, and low-income students are even more at risk of dropping out.

A Catholic Charities Fort Worth program decided to evaluate whether a mentor makes a difference when it comes to staying in school.

College student/mother of four

Lisa Schellenberg has four kids, ranging in age from 11 to 21. So her college backpack carries some untraditional items; things like hand wipes, charging cords and chapstick. She's 47 years old and three semesters away from a communications degree from the University of North Texas.

"Probably one of the older ones in each class, but that doesn't even bother me, because I have this goal and I'm trying to stay on course," she said "And I would love for everybody to see that and go 'You know, I want to be on course, too.'"

Schellenberg started out at Tarrant County College in 2015, but that wasn't the path she imagined taking. Back in 2007, her husband lost his sales job. They were living in Florida at the time, and as the financial crisis took hold of the country, they lost their home to foreclosure. Her husband was unemployed for nine months before finding work in Texas.

"Our 401K was gone, our savings, our checking," she said. "We were on Medicaid, WIC, food stamps, you name it."

Hoping to help

When he did land a job, he was making about a quarter of what he used to. Even now, his salary's about half of what it was in Florida.

"There's anxiety to hurry up and get to me working and have a career, so I can help contribute," Schellenberg said.

Without a degree, she says she could never find work that paid more than $12 or $15 an hour, so she decided to go to college. It had been a long time since she'd been in class though, and she was overwhelmed. So she jumped at the chance to join a program called "Stay the Course" that paired her with a mentor at Catholic Charities Fort Worth.

"You could share with them your troubles," she said. "And instead of like talking down at you, it's more like 'OK, let's take this apart, what got you to here, what can we do to fix this." 

Someone to help navigate

That's what mentors, known as navigators within this program, are all about. Helping students troubleshoot not just problems at school, but problems at home.

Cortney Cunningham who runs "Stay the Course" explains why that part is so important.

"A lot of community college students, they're low-income, so that kind of introduces a different set of barriers that come along with them when they're trying to focus and complete academic life," she said.

Barriers like a broken-down car, a babysitter that cancels, a higher-than-expected electric bill. These kind of things often force a low-income student to drop out of community college, but Stay the Course works hard to prevent that, offering guidance and even financial assistance.

Getting results

And it's working. A lab at the University of Notre Dame analyzed the first three years of the program.

"Stay the Course students that participate in the program, they're two times more likely to stay in school," Cunningham said. "And then the female population, they're up to four times more likely to stay in school and that's compared to the control group."

Lisa Schellenberg isn't sure she would have made it through community college without her navigator, always reminding her to pack the kids lunches the night before so she wouldn't be late leaving the house, or helping her tweak her schedule so she had more time for homework.

Now, she's two semesters in at UNT. And even though it's hard, she's committed.

"I just know everything's going to be OK because no matter what, this is what I'm supposed to do," she said. "I'm supposed to get this bachelor's degree. I've come this far."

And she's not giving up. After all, her four kids are watching.

Courtney Collins has been working as a broadcast journalist since graduating from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2004. Before coming to KERA in 2011, Courtney worked as a reporter for NPR member station WAMU in Washington D.C. While there she covered daily news and reported for the station’s weekly news magazine, Metro Connection.