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Thursday, September 28, 2017 - 4:00pm

A recent report issued by the Lumina Foundation, a private organization dedicated to postsecondary education, cited statistics that raise concerns what is preventing many college students from completing their degree within four years.

The report showed that more and more college students are over the age of 25, are balancing school with work and family responsibilities, and are living at or below poverty level—all of which can derail students striving to reach their most important life goals.

While Mercy College has earned national distinction for its numerous programs and people committed to helping students overcome such obstacles, all agree that more must be done.

Maverick Digital sat down with Margaret McGrail, Mercy College’s Vice President of Enrollment Services, to talk about Mercy’s programs and initiatives for addressing this nationally-recognized problem that could stand in the way of a lifelong dream.

What factors could prompt a student to leave college before finishing their degree?

What we’ve found at Mercy is that students are often derailed due to economic reasons. Many students need to work part-time or full-time jobs during school, which limits them to 12 credits a semester. At that rate, they will not finish in four years. To continue, they must incur a fifth year of tuition.

Aside from that, most scholarships pay only tuition and fees. All other costs of attendance remain the student’s responsibility: room and board, an off-campus apartment, or commuting costs are typical expenses not covered by a scholarship. And then there are unexpected situations that can force a student to choose between paying for college or paying for more urgent needs for themselves and their families.

How is Mercy addressing this problem?

The Board of Trustees has earmarked funding for scholarships and programs that allow students to stay in school.

As soon as they begin meeting with their PACT mentor, the student’s situation is assessed for situations that may qualify them for an award. For example, say a student owes the college $1,000 toward their tuition, but just can’t scrape it together. A student owing a balance like this would not allowed to register for the next semester. But the Board of Trustees Scholarship helps the student by paying off the remaining balance so they can enroll for the coming year. It’s a small investment that makes a huge difference.

What about students who seem to be on track when something unforeseeable occurs?

The PACT program, as well as Mercy’s excellent mentoring program, allows advisors to really get to know each student so they can be a helpful guide to the appropriate support when needs arise. Mercy’s Guided Pathways to Success (GPS) provides students with individualized assistance in planning their schedule. This type of purposeful planning can help keep students on track to graduation and avoiding that fifth year.

Mercy also has a truly unique program called Daddy Short Legs, a need-based scholarship for students in their final year. It helps students with one-time expenses that could prevent them from graduating. For example, a student might rely on an old car that finally breaks down, leaving them without a way to get to campus. Another student might use the funding to pay for childcare, a family illness, or some other unexpected financial burden.

What prompted Mercy to focus on this type of student need?

Three years ago a college-wide assessment revealed a large number of students who were unable to continue their studies because of outstanding balances, some of which were quite small. The Board felt it was a terrible waste of talent and time to allow these students fall short just shy of their goal, and has stood by its commitment to support disadvantaged students.

It works on a case-by-case basis. Our job is to identify students with outstanding balances, and to figure out what they need to remedy that. It might be simple procrastination or forgetfulness, and with a gentle nudge the student will pay their bill. But if they’ve hit some hard times that prevent them from making payments, that’s when we step in to help with one or more support programs.

How much of a problem is student retention at Mercy?

Retention and improved graduation rates have been a priority for Mercy for about 10 years, and one of the most effective programs has been PACT, Mercy’s personalized achievement mentoring. Because mentors are familiar with the whole student—their environment, motivation, obstacles to achievement—they can spot trouble early and intervene. Within just a few years of adopting the PACT advising model, Mercy saw a 10 percent increase in retention—a huge jump, and very rare. Yet Mercy continues to improve. Currently our retention rate is hovering around 70 percent, compared to the national rate, which in 2014 was less than 61 percent. And many Hispanic Serving Institutions like Mercy have retention rates in the teens. We are beating the trends.

What are the major causes of student dropout?

Honestly, it’s life. So many of our students are first-generation, so they are not getting help or advice from their own parents about what it takes to succeed. They have to figure it out themselves, and that puts them at a disadvantage.

On top of that, many students are working part time to help with the family’s household expenses, and college interferes with earning time. A fair number of our older students have families of their own. It’s very hard to have to decide where the money goes: for their education or for their kids. We don’t want anyone to have to make that hard choice.

What are the financial consequences to dropping out?

Many students have outstanding loans. So if they drop out before earning a degree to improve their earning potential, they’re walking away with debt and low job prospects. All that hard work and time they’ve invested goes to waste. We reach out to students who’ve dropped out to see if we can help get them back on track, but it’s a lot harder at this point. We try to intervene earlier.

Can you give a specific example of how this program saved a student from dropping out?

I know of one student who was about to be evicted from her apartment. She was a single mother who had fallen behind on her rent, and the landlord was about to put her out on the street. Of course, being homeless eclipses everything else in your life, and we knew that if she lost her home it would be the end of her college education. The Daddy Short Legs grant helped her pay the back rent she owed, which satisfied the landlord and bought her some time. We also put her in touch with a campus social worker to advise her so whatever led to the situation does not happen again.