By Jeffrey L. Stec, J.D.
Student retention is a priority for any community college, as non-traditional students often have financial, family or personal challenges that forestall completion of their degree. To address these issues, Cincinnati State has launched CState Accelerate, an innovative program that provides academic, personal and financial supports to low-income students to help them earn an associate degree within three years.
The program was originally developed at the City University of New York (CUNY). CState Accelerate was launched in 2015 as a 350-student pilot program as part of a comprehensive three-year study to test the effectiveness of the model in Ohio. CState Accelerate gained national attention after MDRC – a non-profit, non-partisan education policy and research organization – found that CState Accelerate nearly doubled the three-year graduation rate for participating students.”
Due to the generosity of foundations and individuals throughout Greater Cincinnati, 225 students entered the first year of the full-time program in the Fall ’21 and Spring ’22 semesters. To be eligible for the program, students need to be eligible for federal Pell Grants, be in a degree-seeking program, and maintain at least a 2.0 GPA.
A key component of the local program is the “triage coordinator” who builds ongoing, deep relationships with students so that they can help the student understand, access and effectively utilize the college’s comprehensive resources throughout their years in the program. These resources including career counseling, tutoring services, registration assistance, personal counseling, and financial support (the goal is for these low-income students to pay little to nothing for their education). Personalized attention is key. For example, the staff found work-study programs at the college for ten students who needed extra income to stay in school.
According to program director Tammie Larkins, Director, CState Accelerate, what really makes the difference in this program is love. One current student recently wrote,
“Ms. Tammie, thank you for treating me like part of your family. You have watched me cry and laugh and never judged me. Thank you for believing in me when I didn’t even believe in myself. I truly wish I had a mother like you. You give me so much hope in life and my dreams.”
Yet this letter wasn’t just inspired by an amazing person (“Love is my wheelhouse,” says Larkins), because community is baked into the program. Each year’s student cohort goes through extensive team on boarding that helps them get to know each as they develop a “healthy vision” for their time at the college.
Moreover, the CState Accelerate office is the student hang-out, and the three person staff (Larkins and two triage coordinators) have recruited students to become ambassadors charged with engaging their peers. They are also using the online educational tool Blackboard to create a student-to-student networking platform so they can support each other’s efforts. Importantly, Tammie’s team brings her students together to celebrate small victories and grow student confidence – getting past mid-term exams is a big deal because many students quit classes when homework piles up during exam time.
The staff also understands that their own authenticity and working collaboration are essential to building a supportive community for students. Tammie and her team consequently took the DiSC personality assessment to understand their strengths and weaknesses – and the behaviors essential to effective communication and teamwork given their personality differences.
Larkins’ team also helps address the trauma that can cause some low-income and non-traditional students to stop taking classes. By building close relationships and using their office as a hangout, Tammie and staff give students space to be with their feelings – which leads to deeper trust, understanding and truly personalized support. For example, a mother of one student was very discouraging of her son attending college. She says, “We helped him become a man that could articulate why he needed to be here in college.” Without the love, such “professional” interventions aren’t possible.
But Larkins is quick to point out that they don’t coddle the students; for them to become the best version of themselves, support must include accountability. Students must set goals and be held accountable to their commitments even as staff support their efforts. In the end, she and her staff communicate that they are no different than their students – they just got their degrees first. This humble framing of the staff role makes CState Accelerate like a family lead by three heads of household, all in it together regardless of the difficulties that inevitably arise.
Students interested in CState Accelerate should go to www.cincinnatistate.edu/cstateaccelerate.
To support CState Accelerate, give online at https://www.cincinnatistate.edu/give/donate-now/, or make a check payable to “Cincinnati State Foundation” (please note the purpose on the “For” line), and send to the Cincinnati State Foundation; Attn: Elliott Ruther, ATLC 352; 3520 Central Parkway; Cincinnati, OH 45223.