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Focus On Basics

Volume 6, Issue D ::: February 04

Building the Desire, Building the Ability

Community-based programs play a role in introducing learners to college and in helping them persist

by Brenda Dann-Messier & Eva I. Kampits
Dorcas Place is a 22-year-old adult and family learning center in Providence, RI, which assists low-income adults to realize their full potential through literacy, employment, advocacy, and community involvement. Four years ago, we surveyed students to determine their long-term aspirations. Only half of the more than 100 students enrolled at that time indicated that they intended to continue their study after they passed the tests of General Educational Development (GED). This mirrored the student profile in Rhode Island, where 43 percent indicated GED as their terminal goal (OVAE, 2003). In fact, Dorcas Place students' aspirations were better than those in the United States overall. The US Department of Education's OVAE 2003 report to Congress (using year 2001 figures) states that only 25 percent of adult students enrolled in adult education have transition to postsecondary education or training as their goal.

While a larger percentage of Dorcas Place students aspired to postsecondary education than did students in other states, as a staff, we believed that 50 percent was too low. Research shows that increasing the educational attainment level of adults leads to reductions in family poverty rates, higher wages, stronger labor force attachment, and greater personal and civic responsibility (Dann-Messier, 2000). Thus, the task of raising the aspirations of students and their families became a top priority for Dorcas Place. We got funding from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation to establish a multifaceted College Preparatory Program (CPP) that would instill higher education aspirations and ensure a smooth transition to and persistence in college.

Drawing on Best Practices
We launched the pilot College Preparatory Program in 2001, basing the design on the successful practices of the 35-year-old federal TRIO program. Funded under Title IV of the Higher Education act, "these programs focus on access to college, retention, and graduation for low-income students as part of a strategy to strengthen the nation's economy and society." In 1997, researcher Lana Muraskin conducted a study of one of the TRIO programs, Student Support Services. She identified these elements as best practices: assistance with college admissions and course selection, social preparation for college, counseling, ongoing academic skills development, peer support, and a constant assurance to students that they can succeed (Muraskin, 1997). Those elements form the essential framework of the Dorcas Place program.

Low-income, first-generation adult learners confront many challenges that have to be overcome or managed before they can enroll in adult education and college. CPP's design includes attention to overcoming these barriers. They may include situational, dispositional, and institutional factors that affect and are often beyond the control of adult learners (Wonacott, 2001). Situational factors include job, health, financial, and legal issues and family or personal problems. Dispositional factors include expectations, self-esteem, level of family support, and past educational experiences. Institutional factors including the educational bureaucracy itself, program fees, scheduling, and procedures that serve a traditionally younger and more dependent student population can either help or hinder participation (see, for example, Belzer, 1998; Hubble, 2000; Quigley, 1998).

Over time the pilot program evolved. Today, it consists of five major components: intensive career, educational, and academic counseling; a semester-long bridge program between adult basic education and college; articulation agreements between Dorcas Place and the colleges our students attend; advocacy with key policy leaders; and continual evaluation and assessment. These components are described in the following sections. 

Career, Educational, and Academic Counseling 
In the initial year of the program, staff focused on personal issues that inhibited students' persistence in adult education. This focus has been expanded to include raising learners' goals to include postsecondary study, and advising them on selecting colleges and remaining on an appropriate path to meet their postsecondary goals. Our multilingual, multiracial staff members also model lifelong learning by staying current in their field. Throughout each semester, current and former CPP students speak to all the classes, urging students to consider college and apply for admissions into the bridge course and assisting them in persisting once they have enrolled.

Brookfield describes adult students as feeling like imposters on campus (1999). To build interest in college, we take students on college tours. At first, trips were limited to students concluding their GED requirements. To motivate lower-level students to persist in education, we opened these trips to all students. This past summer, Dorcas Place offered an intensive college orientation program to students at any literacy or language level taught at the center. Teachers previewed the trips in class, answered questions, and oriented students to the institutions they were going to visit. Students - typically 40 to 60 each visit - visited up to seven college campuses and participated in cultural events throughout Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. The college counselor conducted follow-up discussions with interested students on a regular basis. We will keep expanding our college tours and cultural events as funding permits. Students who had never stepped onto a college campus before now speak more confidently about going to college. They are more comfortable having walked around campus, eaten in the dining hall, and talked with undergraduates. Site visits let students know that they do indeed belong on campus.

In advocating for college, we also stress the long-term financial benefits of an undergraduate education. Research by Carnevale and Fry (2001) and others illustrates the benefits of postsecondary education both to individuals and the nation. They identify knowledge as crucial in determining "individual economic opportunity and our overall economic competitiveness" (p. 5). Dorcas Place staff integrate this information into the adult basic education and College Preparatory Program curricula. They use data from a newsletter entitled Postsecondary Education Opportunity (www.postsecondary.org), produced by T. Mortensen, which documents the positive correlation between educational attainment and earnings.

Mortensen's graphs and figures reveal the lack of economic improvement for certain groups in the United States over the past 30 years: "Those with the most education have prospered, experiencing substantial real gains in their incomes and living standards. Others with the least education have experienced stagnation in their incomes and relative loss of income, which has shifted to better-educated workers. In many cases, those with least education have experienced substantial real income losses, and concomitant losses in living standards both compared to better educated workers and compared to living costs" (p. 1). Students analyze similar research data in math classes, grappling with information that illustrates that "the dividing line between those who are succeeding and those who are struggling to survive is increasingly educational attainment" (p. 1).

Along with feeling uneasy on college campuses and failing to realize that education, although costly in the short term, is a route out of poverty, our students also look with fear at increases in college tuition and fees twice the rate of inflation or more over the past three years nationwide. The college counselor reviews with them the types and availability of financial aid and assists them in completing the necessary documents for admissions and financial support.

Persistence in our classes and then in college remains a significant challenge to Dorcas Place CPP students. A social worker and other Dorcas Place case managers provide support services for personal issues such as childcare and housing referrals. Working as student advocates, our staff collaborate closely with the Community College of RI (CCRI). The CCRI community is both very committed and sensitive to the various needs of their students since adults are now a growing majority on campus. Students have access to support on an as-needed basis; staff members reach out to those who do not directly initiate contact. When students drop out, it has been primarily due to personal issues, such as a change in family health, housing, or childcare arrangements. 

Bridge Component
Tinto (2003a) stresses that "students persist when they find themselves in settings that hold high expectations for their learning, are provided academic and social support and are actively involved in learning" (p. 5). We were also influenced by Tinto's belief that "successful education, not retention, is the secret of successful retention programs," (p. 5) and determined that we needed to maintain the close personal bonds we had with students in their transition. Our experience has also been that students need intensive academic skill enhancement to make the transition to college smoothly. Adapting the TRIO model of social support, we designed a semester-long bridge component in which CPP students attend class on college campus twice a week. Requiring students to enroll in college as a cohort enables students to participate in their own small learning community and support each other as they progress through the course. Tuition, books, and supplies are funded by Dorcas Place. 

Two days a week, the bridge component students return to Dorcas Place's Learning Resource Center (LRC), a drop in academic center that serves students preparing to enter college and those already enrolled. There they receive academic assistance, including supplemental instruction, participate in study groups, tutoring, and other academic support. Used computers donated to the agency are available for students to keep.

Articulation Agreements 
Our students need the support not just of Dorcas Place but also of the colleges they attend. Recent research on college completion rates confirms this (Thomas et al., 2003), as does Tinto's framework for effective retention programs, which features "commitment towards students which directs their activitiesÍ [and] requires the collaborative effort of all members of the institution, faculty, staff, and administrators alike" (2003b, p.118). We try to assure that via articulation agreements.

Dorcas Place's articulation agreement's chief characteristic is that it requires assurance from the college that an appropriate academic and student support system component specific to the adult learner will be available on campus. The agreement also ensures that the college will encourage students to continue their education beyond an associate's degree or certificate program. While we assume that we will have to provide some advice to students interested in transferring to other colleges for additional education, the articulation agreement commits the college to this work as well. Most Dorcas Place students find community college to be appropriate for their first college experience. We are expanding our articulation agreements to other colleges and universities as students complete their associate's degrees and visit other institutions.

Advocacy with Policy Leaders
More than 67 percent of Dorcas Place students receive public assistance. Current welfare legislation restricts TANF recipients from attending college beyond 12 months (as a vocational education countable activity) unless states implement policies that are less restrictive. As a result of concerted advocacy by Dorcas Place and others, underscoring the long-term economic value of investing in the college education of welfare recipients, Rhode Island allows eligible welfare recipients to attend college for 24 college months. In addition to this specific advocacy, as president of Dorcas Place, the author meets with higher education leaders on a regular basis, often through joint membership on regional task forces and boards. We also invite higher education leaders to attend CPP celebrations each year.

Advocacy is valuable in other arenas as well. Cognizant of national data on the scarcity of adult males attending college, Dorcas Place advocated with community and governmental agencies that serve men, leading to an increase in their enrollment at Dorcas Place. Last year, males represented 50 percent of bridge enrollment. 

Evaluation and Assessment
Evaluation continues throughout the semester, with staff in regular contact with students, faculty, and the academic dean. A more formal evaluation takes place with all the partners at the end of the semester, reviewing what worked or did not. These evaluation sessions have led to program revision and transformation, as components are eliminated or broadened. For example, the first two bridge components included Dorcas Place faculty who sat in on the course as part of their academic duties. They don't do this anymore since we have a good rapport with the college professor and are familiar with the course content. Instead, the college counselor and peer advisor stay on campus on the days that bridge program students attend class.

Progress toward learners' goals is monitored quarterly. Curriculum improvements are continual; modifications are based on bridge staff and students' feedback. For example, student feedback highlighted the need for assistance in becoming better writers since students discovered the importance of such proficiency in college work. We now concentrate more fully on developing students' writing abilities. 

Lessons for the Future 
Today, as a direct result of our College Preparatory Program, more than 90 percent of our more than 400 students declare their interest in continuing their study beyond the GED and indicate that they will encourage their children to pursue higher education as well. Upon completion of the bridge component, out of an estimated eight to 10 students, perhaps six or seven will be enrolled in college in the next semester.

A new and complementary focus is the inclusion of children with their parents in our college awareness activities, as part of our Family Literacy initiative. Families will be invited on college tours and cultural events to develop aspirations for college study and recognize its lifelong benefits. We were recently awarded a national TRIO dissemination grant through the Council for Opportunity in Education to scale up and replicate our five-element model regionally. This will allow us to add another bridge component, to be offered in the evening. Working adults will attend college class one night a week on campus and return to Dorcas Place at least two evenings a week for academic skill development and supplementary services. Both of those new initiatives will be linked to a system of evaluation that ensures that they meet community needs in demonstrable ways.

The Dorcas Place Adult & Family Learning Center model builds on the premise that we as an agency and our students must focus on high aspirations, apply resources to this in both academic and student support areas, and demonstrate mutual commitment. We have identified partners and created collaborations with higher education institutions and policymakers, at the state, regional, and national levels. We engage in continuous evaluation and assessment. This full circle can resonate effectively with the higher education community, policy makers interested in promoting an able and educated work force, and the goals of the adult learning agency and its students in promoting educational opportunities for life-long learning for success.

Belzer, A. (1998) "Stopping out, not dropping out." Focus on Basics 2A, 15-17. 

Brookfield, S. (1999). "What is college really like for adult students?" About Campus, 3/6, 10-15.

Carnevale, A. & Fry, R. (2001). Economics, Demography and the Future of Higher Education Policy. Washington, DC: National Governors Association, p. 5.

Dann-Messier, B. (2000). Access To Higher Education for Welfare Recipients: An Analysis of Welfare Policy Development Designed by National and State Policymakers. Unpublished dissertation. Providence, RI: Johnson & Wales University.

Hubble, J. (2000). Intake Procedures as a Factor in Identifying and Addressing Barriers to Attendance of Adult Education Students. Unpublished Master's thesis. Southwest Texas State University.

Mortensen, T. (2003). "Educational Attainment 1940-2002," In T. Mortenson (ed.), Opportunity, The Environmental Scanning Research Letter of Opportunity for Postsecondary Education, 129, 1.

Muraskin, L. (1997). A Structured Freshman Year for At-Risk Students. Washington, DC: National TRIO Clearinghouse.

Office of Vocational Education (2003). Report to Congress. Washington, DC: US Department of Education.

Quigley, B. (1998). "The first three weeks: A critical time for motivation." Focus on Basics, 2A. 6-10. 

Thomas, L., Cooper, M., & Quinn, J. (eds.) (2003), Improving Completion Rates Among Disadvantaged Students. Sterling, NY: Trentham Books.

Tinto, V. (2003a). Student Success and the Construction of Inclusive Educational Communities. Syracuse, NY: Higher Education Program, School of Education, Syracuse University. 

Tinto, V. (2003b). "Establishing conditions for student success," in L. Thomas, M. Cooper & J. Quinn, (eds.), Improving Completion Rates Among Disadvantaged Students. Sterling, NY: Trentham Books.

Wonacott, M. ( 2001). "Adult students: Recruitment and retention." Eric Practice Application Brief No. 18. ERIC, Clearinghouse on Adult, Career, and Vocational Education.

About the Authors
Brenda Dann-Messier has been President of Dorcas Place for more than four years. Before that, she worked at the LAB@ Brown University, was the United States Secretary of Education's Regional Representative based in Boston, and directed two TRIO programs, the Rhode Island Educational Opportunity Center and the Educational Talent Search Program of the Community College of Rhode Island. 

Eva I. Kampits has been an educator and consultant for more than 35 years. Director of the Office of School/College Relations since 1994 for New England Association of Schools & Colleges (NEASC), she has led initiatives promoting partnerships, developing evaluation and assessment models, and contributing to research and analysis of public policy issues with national and international partners as well as legislatures. Her current activities range from supporting access and equity for disadvantaged students of any age to consulting with the People's Republic of China.

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL