Just 40 percent of U.S. community college students complete within six years. And a growing body of evidence shows that comprehensive student supports may be the best way to get community college completion rates up to an acceptable level.
These wraparound or holistic supports can be expensive. And community colleges already are severely cash strapped. So some are partnering with groups that have a proven track record of providing student supports.
One Million Degrees is one of just a few organizations that fit this bill, according to three academic experts in a recent Brookings Institution report. The 15-year old, Chicago-based nonprofit group collaborates closely with City Colleges of Chicago. It’s also working on a new project to expand the One Million Degrees model to Colorado.
Paige Ponder has been the organization’s CEO for almost nine years. She’s stepping down at the end of the year, and gave an exit interview to Work Shift about the group’s take on wraparound supports and how it could be replicated around the country.
An edited version of the interview is below. Or you can listen to the audio of our full conversation here:
Q: Where does the work stand for your organization after 15 years? And what has the pandemic changed?
Paige Ponder: When I started nine years ago, we were serving about 75 students—a really little shoestring operation. I was the seventh employee. And we’ve been really focused during my tenure on scaling in Chicago. So now we have staff who work on 10 college campuses. We’re supporting about 750 scholars every year. We have another 200 folks who are in earn-and-learn programs, apprenticeships, and mid-career upskilling partnerships that we’re supporting. So we’ve been really focused on codifying our model and building systems around it. And just really getting good at doing our thing.
For the pandemic, like everyone, we were big believers in doing a lot of things in person. We bring people together. We create community with our community college scholars. We pair them with a coach who is a volunteer, who we’ve recruited from industries across Chicago, professional associations across Chicago. And we did a lot of in-person activities. So we had to move all of that onto Zoom, just like everybody else. But it has changed our thinking—it just has created so much more flexibility. And things don’t have to be as place-based as they were for us before.
Q: Awareness about the importance of wraparound student supports is on the rise. But what works best?
Ponder: Our big learning ‘aha,’ through doing the work and through going through this randomized control trial that we’ve been doing with the University of Chicago Inclusive Economy Lab, and starting to learn more about our very few peers across the country: It’s not just one thing. It’s not just tutoring. It’s not just financial support. It’s not just coaching and personal support. It’s all the things and that a coherent ecosystem of supports needs to be created. And this is why it’s difficult to scale. Because it’s complicated. There’s a lot of moving parts. Because one student may be struggling with housing and another student may be struggling with their coursework and their grades. Another student may be struggling with mental health. You name it. And that same student might have a different struggle a couple of weeks later.
You have to create a robust but flexible and integrated system. There’s no way around this being a pretty intensively interpersonal enterprise. So we have staff who work with pretty small caseloads of students—about 60-65 on their college campuses. They get to know them really, really well. They understand their aspirations. They understand their dreams. They understand their challenges. And they’re able to connect them to resources and bob and weave with them as they navigate the whole process. We also have over 500 volunteers who work with our scholars. And they’re doing a complementary role. They tend to be less in the weeds and more thought partners with them on their next steps after college. But they might be connecting them to their own networks of professionals who are in the field that the scholar wants to go into, or maybe even taking them to see a four-year university campus.
There’s this whole range of activities that would be impossible to program with an algorithm. That’s a very human connection. But you do have to have a lot of systems. We are very committed to our data system because we have to keep track of all of this. And we have to coordinate all of these moving parts. That’s what we think makes our program impactful and successful and also what makes it complicated and difficult to scale.
Q: How optimistic are you that models like this will take hold at scale nationwide? What sort of resources will be needed for that?
Ponder: Definitely more infusion of resources, which seems like folks are starting to understand. It’s also thinking differently. And more coordination at the college level, too. And really creating student-centered cultures. If everyone thinks, ‘oh, that’s not my job. It’s the advisor’s job to deal with that or the counseling department’s job.’ That’s where the student gets lost. It’s really engaging faculty, engaging counselors and advisors. There is a need for more people to do this kind of work. But it’s also partnering with organizations like us, who can be very helpful in bringing in volunteers to help with some of it, too.
It’s this coordinated ecosystem of supports. The thing that we don’t pay enough attention to is really connecting students to the professional world. We do that through our volunteer coaches who play this range of functions in terms of personal support: ‘I believe you can do this. I’m here to help you.’ But also a window into the professional world. We talk about the last mile: You can get the degree, but if you have no way of connecting to the jobs, then the degree is of limited value. How do we help—in a thoughtful, intentional way—students build these networks and build these connections that can help them get really good jobs?
To your other point about colleges being under-resourced, the career service departments are the hardest hit. They tend to be a couple of people for tens of thousands of students, which is absurd. Of course there’s no way that the college or university can significantly help students find jobs if there’s literally hardly anybody working there.
Q: Speaking generally, it feels like employers are more engaged and doing more to help make that last-mile connection. Does that seem right?
Ponder: In Chicago there’s been a lot of momentum around apprenticeships. We have the Chicago Apprentice Network. AON and Accenture have been leaders. We’re working with five Chicago hospitals and another organization, called West Side United, that’s focused on a range of wellness indicators on the West Side of Chicago, to do upskilling of incumbent workers into clinical roles.
We are feeling and seeing employers understanding that they have one hand tied behind their backs in terms of the talent that they can access or have traditionally accessed. That there’s so many more talented people out there and that they have to think differently about how to find those folks, how to support them, how to develop them, and how to integrate them into their organizations. That this premium on bachelor’s degrees and that anyone in your enterprise who does anything must have a bachelor’s degree—that’s just a very dated way of thinking. That’s not gonna work for your bottom line. And more interest and willingness to engage, to partner directly with colleges, and to engage folks like us to help be the mortar between those two bricks.
It’s small and I know a lot of people that I talk to would like to see a lot more of it and feel like it’s still harder than it should be. But I’m an optimist and I’ve seen systems change in K-12 here at the Chicago Public Schools. It always starts small, and then becomes more normalized. And then it becomes the thing that everybody does. And then eventually you reach scale. But I know we all feel real urgency around helping that move forward.
Q: Let’s talk about the other brick. How has your relationship with City Colleges of Chicago evolved?
Ponder: The chancellor, Juan Salgado, is a community-based leader. He comes from a community organization. He has been incredibly welcoming to organizations like us and really understands, ‘Hey, it takes a village here. And while it is more complicated for us to coordinate with all of you, it’s worth it because you’re helping us attract and retain students and helping them get great jobs.’ They are really working on creating a student-centered culture, a culture of care. It also helps that one of my dearest friends and a fabulous woman, Veronica Herrero, who was the One Million Degrees chief program officer, is now chief of staff and strategy at City Colleges.
We’re being invited into conversations of City Colleges wanting to help students coming from high school, to not just register them for classes, but to understand their purpose. Why are they here? What do they want to achieve? What is their vision for themselves? Which to a lot of people may sound very squishy, but that’s what we believe. If you don’t have that then you don’t really have a leg to stand on. They’re engaging us to brainstorm together to think through what we could do at scale within our system. How can we get more of the One Million Degrees way? Which is really helping students build their identities, creating community and relationships, and making them feel that they can do it—how do you get more of that into the water of this huge system of seven colleges?
Q: Your model is expanding beyond Chicago. Can you talk a little bit about what’s in the works?
Ponder: The Colorado Department of Higher Education put out an RFP for a program that they are calling Finish What You Started, which is seeking to bring adults—25 to 35 who have some college but haven’t finished their degree—back to college. They were seeking a partner to provide the holistic supports. What they were asking for was remarkably close to our regular model. So now we’re going to be working with Adams County, Colorado, with the Colorado Department of Higher Education, helping them recruit adult students from the community and to connect them to the college or the university of their choice. It could be any public two- or four-year college.
We’ll be providing the wraparound supports and partnering with the community, recruiting the volunteer coaches from employers, and really doing a full replication of the OMD model in Adams County, with a few key adaptations. And now they’re thinking about how to scale that across the state. Both Chicago and Colorado have a focus on adult students with some college, no degree—how can we bring them back? Everybody understands how critical this is to post-pandemic economic recovery.