Catalyzing Change

“My ultimate goal is to see people graduate,” says Amber Schultz, Ed.D.

With 20 years of experience under her belt, the assistant vice president for admissions, marketing and recruitment at St. Cloud State University in central Minnesota has a singular focus: getting more students that piece of paper that can change their lives, their families’ lives and their communities.

“We strive to be a life-changing institution and attract students who may not have a lot of access to higher education for various reasons,” Shultz says. “We strive to take each student where they want to go.”

That is no easy task: of all low-income students who enroll in a four-year degree-granting institution, only 32 percent will end up earning their degree, compared to 71 percent of their upper-income peers.

Photo courtesy of Luther College

That gap is what College Possible has been striving to close for over 18 years. In that time, we’ve seen firsthand the unique barriers that low-income students often face. Things that may seem small, like getting a flat tire, often have a ripple effect that lead low-income students to drop out of college.

Through College Possible’s high school programming, students attend after-school sessions in their junior and senior years, and stay in contact with college coaches until they earn their degree. In the last 10 years, College Possible expanded this model beyond our starting point in Minnesota to five new sites, vastly increasing the number of students receiving near-peer coaching.

As more and more low-income and first-generation students enter U.S. campuses, it’s vital that institutions are prepared to be responsive to the unique needs of these students — unique needs that College Possible programming has been able to meet at our partner institutions. But the need is so much greater than our six sites have been able to match.

This was the impetus behind the creation of Catalyze, a program launched by College Possible in 2016. The goal of Catalyze is to aid colleges and universities in embedding our curriculum and coaching model on their campuses, thereby greatly expanding the impact College Possible can have and supporting even more students on their college journeys. Catalyze has a simple, but powerful, vision: to help colleges and universities graduate more of the 2.4 million students on campus who come from low-income backgrounds.

“It’s amazing that our campuses are increasing the number of low-income and first-generation students they’re serving,” says Carrie Carroll, senior partnerships manager for Catalyze. “But the reality is that many institutions don’t have the staff or resources to fully support these students in the way they’d like to.”

Taking near-peer coaching a step further

College Possible’s model has shown great success over the past 18 years, closing the degree divide for our students to just a few percentage points.

“We knew we were doing a great job and seeing great results via direct service,” says Kendra Krolik, senior director, Catalyze. “We also knew that we were serving only a fraction of the students who should be able to benefit from coaching. That’s what led us to ask, how can we effectively expand our reach? How can we serve even more students?”

The model that developed from these conversations took a new approach: What if we served college students who didn’t participate in College Possible’s high school program? What if we embedded near-peer coaches on campuses across the country to help students navigate their college journey and make it to graduation day?

To pilot this new model, College Possible turned to some of its most valued college partners, including St. Cloud State University. “College Possible approached me and asked, ‘What if we took this one step further? We want to make sure students graduate. What can we do? What will it take?’” says Schultz. “I absolutely wanted to do this. I couldn’t wait to see it happen.”

The dedicated support of college partners such as St. Cloud State University will prove invaluable to Catalyze’s ultimate success, allowing us to bring together College Possible’s proven model with strong on-campus resources to best serve students.

In January 2016, College Possible began testing this new approach at four Minnesota colleges with whom we have close relationships: College of Saint Benedict, Saint John’s University, Augsburg University and Saint Cloud State University.

As for the results? “The numbers speak for themselves,” says Schultz.

In the last two years, all Catalyze partnership colleges have seen high semester and annual persistence rates, that is, students re-enrolling from one semester to the next or one year to the next. “We have had stronger persistence rates for our College Possible Catalyze students than our overall Pell-eligible population,” says Schultz. (Pell Grant-eligible students often serve as a direct comparison group to College Possible students.) “These numbers aren’t only important for our leadership but also show nationally the great work of College Possible.”

Not only that, but Catalyze students outperformed the general student population at Saint Cloud State University. “Those results were big,” says Carroll. “First, it showed that what we were doing was working: more students were persisting which makes them more likely to graduate. Second, it’s a great validation for the institutions, showing that our partnership is making a difference for their students.”

Building a culture shift

The key to Catalyze’s impact is near-peer coaching, an approach first proven in our high school program. Through near-peer coaching, students work with a recent college graduate, often an AmeriCorps service member, who can help them navigate the financial, academic and cultural barriers that often exist for low-income or first generation college students.

These coaches aren’t duplicating efforts that already exist. Instead, they act as a guide, connecting students to on-campus resources, providing introductions and offering a listening ear when students feel lost or like they don’t belong.

Catalyze coach Arissa Koines meets with a student at Augsburg University.

“Day after day, we see students who are so much more comfortable connecting with their near-peer coach,” says Schultz. “Students are getting answers to questions they may have been too scared to ask before or are getting help on issues that they may have let slide. These things may seem small, but over time, when you don’t have someone there to help you navigate, they add up and take a toll.”

Over time, it’s also about the big picture.

As a Catalyze partner, St. Cloud State University has access to other colleges and universities that are engaged in similar efforts. While each institution is unique, building a community of practice will be invaluable for testing new strategies, developing best practices and implementing new systems.

“I’m looking forward to leveraging this community,” says Schultz. “It won’t just be sharing information, but also learning from these other campuses. We’ve already been talking with Coe College, the newest member of the Catalyze family. Little things like that are really important.”

By learning from College Possible’s 18 years of experience serving low-income students and from institutions and their deep knowledge of their campus community, we can effect mass-scale change in our collective effort to close the degree divide.

“It’s a unique model. College Possible knows exactly when to start addressing certain issues low-income students face. The program they bring to our campus is critical for achieving student success. It’s critical for getting our students to graduation day.” — Amber Schultz, Ed.D.

Since its inception, Catalyze has grown to serve nearly 1,000 students at four partner institutions. In 2018 Catalyze has partnered with three new institutions, with a long-term goal of serving 8,000 students by 2021. For College Possible and the colleges we partner with, this is not simply a matter of increased enrollments. It’s a dedication to ensuring that the dream of a college degree is available to all who have the determination to pursue it.

by Caitlin Swanson

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