Aug. 24, 2022
Like many things in Texas, the greater Dallas-Fort Worth metro area, population 7.6 million and rising, is large. Dallas College is large too. A public community college with seven campuses, it educates over 100,000 students every year. Like other community colleges nationwide, it has faced a mighty struggle to keep its students engaged and learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Where Dallas College stands out is what it has chosen to do in response. It is implementing two key strategies. First, it created free, structured pathways for students in high school to earn a certificate or degree before they graduate. With the high poverty rate of children living in Dallas, this type of pathway can lead to a postsecondary credential before students are considered financially independent, setting them on a more sustainable post-high school path. Second, the college created a comprehensive support network, available through graduation that helps address students’ need for food, housing, mental health care, and other basic needs. With both of these initiatives, the college serves high school students and other young adults grappling with challenges to finishing their credentials.
America’s “affordability crisis” is hitting community college students particularly hard, as they are more likely to come from low-income families and minoritized populations that have been excluded from wealth-building opportunities. While people with college degrees have recovered from pandemic job losses, Americans without college degrees are still struggling to recover, with Black Americans—especially Black women—still unemployed at higher rates than their white peers.
Part of this is due to gaps in college completion by race. As of 2017, almost 40 percent of white Americans over the age of 25 have at least an associate degree, which is true of only 17 percent who identify as Latino and 35 percent of those identifying as Black. The Dallas College student body is 43 percent Latino, 20 percent Black, and 20 percent white.
Meanwhile, the ongoing pandemic disruption and rapidly rising costs of housing, health care, child care, and transportation are colliding with efforts to help more students earn college degrees. Economically vulnerable students are postponing enrollment because they need to earn money or are forced to stop out to make ends meet. And it is not the price of tuition that is the primary problem—it is the cost of everything else that is making college unaffordable for many low-income students and their families.
Over the past 15 years, the poverty rate in Dallas has increased by 42 percent, while the population has only increased 4 percent. According to the Child Poverty Action Lab, one-out-of-three children in Dallas is growing up in poverty. Dallas has the third-highest rate of child poverty of all American cities. Seventy percent of public-school students are considered economically disadvantaged. As one of the nation’s largest, youngest, and fastest-growing metropolitan regions, the Dallas economy is also home to high levels of income inequality, with Black and Latino families significantly over-represented among low earners.
In response, Dallas College provided over 760 students with rental assistance in the 2021–22 academic school year. Over 4,200 students visited the college’s food pantry, and another 15,619 students took advantage of the college's transportation passes to get to campus. The college plans to explore options for emergency campus housing for students struggling with housing insecurity. The college is also hoping to expand its child care offerings so that more student-parents, who make up about 13 percent of Dallas College students, can bring their children to campus.
Dallas College leaders are familiar with the challenge of helping first-generation and economically vulnerable students achieve their career and educational goals and balance those with their immediate economic needs. In Dallas, an associate degree can generate $900,000 more in earnings than a high school diploma over a 40-year career; a certificate program can net over $700,000 more. But for too many Dallas residents, college does not feel feasible.
Poverty has become even more dire since the advent of the COVID pandemic. Evictions in Dallas have surged in 2022, making it one of the top five cities for weekly evictions. Of Dallas residents surveyed in the wake of the pandemic, 22 percent said they increased the balance on credit cards to stay financially afloat, 17 percent said they had used a food bank, 15 percent borrowed money from family or friends, and 12 percent applied for food stamps. At Dallas College, fall enrollment of 18- to 21-year-olds declined by 7,000 from 2019 to 2021, a drop of over 25 percent.
Dallas College is giving its students two things that make all the difference when it comes to completing community college: a clear, achievable path to graduation and employment, and enough financial and personal support to get past the many obstacles that crop up along the way.
Structured Pathways To and Through College for High School Students
As part of its first strategy, Dallas College has created a wide range of Early College High School (ECHS) and Pathways in Technology Early College High Schools (P-TECH) opportunities that are free for students in the Dallas area. Open to all public-school students, these models blend high school and college coursework, so that they can earn a high school diploma while earning significant college credit, and even an associate degree. While ECHSs focus on more academic transfer pathways, P-TECH programs are focused on a particular industry cluster, with embedded, paid, work-based learning opportunities.
Focused on serving historically underserved students, ECHS students are about 60 percent low-income and 66 percent underrepresented students of color. According to LaQuesha Foster, dean of education partnerships at Dallas College, high school students who participate in these opportunities “become college students. It changes their frame of mind. It changes the student, it changes the parent, and it changes the home.” This leads to increased college enrollment and degree attainment.
Compared to traditional, à la carte dual enrollment opportunities, these programs provide more structure and guidance for students and have shown to be effective in significantly improving high school graduation, college enrollment, and college degree attainment. And the programs saw the same improvements for Black and brown students as well as those eligible for free and reduced priced lunch.
But Dallas has not created these models in a vacuum. Texas was an early adopter of what it calls College and Career Readiness School Models. Almost 20 years ago, Texas was one of the pilot sites for a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funded project to test the Early College High School model. In the Rio Grande Valley, the project found champions who expanded it in school districts across the region.
Eventually, the Texas Education Agency created a designation process that looks at these models across a set of criteria, like school design and academic readiness, and certifies their quality along a continuum. This designation makes the programs eligible for some of the $100 million a year the state legislature sets aside to support the startup and continued operation of the models. This designation structure has had the added benefit of making these models prestigious for school districts and colleges to run. At the same time, Texas supports dual enrollment by paying both the school district and the college for each students’ enrollment, ensuring that there is no competition for enrollments and fostering closer cooperation.
The state also set a postsecondary attainment goal that has inspired Dallas College to innovate. As Foster told us, “The state has a 60 by 30 goal, that 60 percent of the population will have some type of credential by 2030. The question is, how do you make that happen? We accepted the challenge.” The state policy environment supports Dallas College in growing these models.
And Dallas College has embraced them. The college now runs 85 College and Career Readiness School Models with 18 school districts, including 29 ECHS and 41 P-TECHs. Almost 30,000 dual credit students were enrolled in Dallas College during the 2020 school year and over 40 percent of those were enrolled in ECHS or P-TECH programs. Over half of these students identified as Latino and another 20 percent identified as Black. In 2021, 2,066 credentials were awarded to dual credit students, with 1,619 from ECHS and P-TECHs. This represents 29 percent of all Dallas College credentials awarded.
The structure of ECHS and P-TECHs is helpful for guiding high school students through their postsecondary experience. Foster said, “initially, students could take whatever they were interested in, not necessarily making the connection to how it would impact them if they transferred to college or to begin a career right away. Over time, we have found a way to be able to see that a good portion of our students are at least leaving with their [general education] core or a certificate complete.” Guiding student choices has smoothed the transition to both a four-year degree and the labor market.
The models all follow the state College and Career Readiness School Model blueprint but there is a lot of diversity in how they operate. Since the education is free to students, the models are funded through state per-student funding at both high school and community college. They are also supported by the $100 million in competitive state funding available every year.
Some of the ECHS and P-TECHs are entirely on the Dallas College campuses for all four years, while others are housed at the high school for freshman and sophomore year before moving to the college campus. Students are provided transportation subsidies when they move to the college campus. The models also employ a variety of faculty. Some are employed by the high school and paid an additional stipend by Dallas College to teach the dual enrollment courses. Others are employed directly by the college.
Through close partnerships with local school districts, helpful state policy, and dedicated staff, structure, and support, Dallas College is helping more high school students access and complete college.
Coordinating and Supporting Basic Needs
Community college students experience high levels of basic needs insecurity, which includes going without food, difficulty paying rent and bills, and homelessness. An April 2021 survey of 195,000 students at 202 colleges and universities in 42 states, found that almost 40 percent of community college respondents had experienced food insecurity in the preceding month. Housing insecurity affected over half of respondents and almost 15 percent of students reported struggling with homelessness. With the exception of homelessness, these rates were much higher for community college students than students enrolled in four-year colleges.
Given the concentrated poverty in the city of Dallas itself, it is unsurprising that Dallas College found much the same thing when it surveyed its own students: students needed help getting enough to eat, access to mental health counseling, child care, funds to cover emergency expenses, help applying for public benefits, and help paying for housing. And while some of the colleges in what was then called the Dallas County Community College District had well-coordinated and well-supported basic needs efforts, the offerings were inconsistent across the seven campuses.
All of that began to change when Dallas became one college with a single accreditation in the fall of 2020. With centralization, the administration began to rethink how it worked with students holistically, with the goal of equalizing access to resources across the seven campuses. Now, every campus has the same staffing, food bank, and other resources. “We have brought everything to scale as part of our reorganization. All of our teams are in place and we're providing all of the same services across our campuses,” said Cruz.
And Dallas College now has a single Student Care Network that coordinates student access to resources. Students are referred or simply fill out a form and a Student Care coordinator assesses what the student needs. After the assessment, the coordinator sends the student to a nurse or mental health counselor or over to a basic needs case manager, who works to connect him or her to resources at the college or in the community. Each Student Care coordinator is either a licensed clinical social worker or a licensed professional counselor, with the knowledge and training to deal with people in crisis.
The Student Care Network takes the complexity out of accessing resources. For instance, before the Student Care Network, a single mother would need to assess if she was eligible for the Working Wonders child care stipend, or if she should contact a community-based organization, or perhaps she could apply to the Adult Resource Center child care subsidy program, or maybe she should apply for subsidized child care at the two Head Start child care centers on the Brookhaven or Eastfield campuses. Now, her Student Care Network coordinator will connect her with a case manager who can help her navigate all the options available and find the one that works best for her family.
Students who are enrolled in ECHS and P-TECHs are also able to access the Student Care Network, along with their families. As long as Dallas College has parental consent, every student on campus can access resources. “All of the services are available to them,” said Cruz, “so if they are having rental assistance issues, we can work with them and the parent who needs the information. Or, hey, you need to come into the food pantry because you haven't eaten. Our philosophy is that any Dallas College student—ECHS, dual credit, non-credit bearing—is a Dallas college student in our eyes and we take care of them to the best of our ability.”
Typically, retention at Dallas College is 55 percent. But students who access the Student Care Network are being retained at a much higher rate. Sixty-nine percent of students who were referred to the Student Care Network were retained, as were 70 percent of students who accessed the food bank. As Cruz put it to us, “the students who have interacted and connected with our services are re-enrolling at a higher rate because they're getting connected right.”
The college takes its partnerships with the community organizations it refers students to seriously. Dean Cruz or one of his assistant deans meets with each external partner at least every other month. They are in the process of creating a Student Care Network partner advisory board that will meet quarterly to talk about the different programs the college is running so everyone is aware of each person's role and the partnerships within the institution. Partners sign a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the college and provide a dedicated liaison so the college can see how its students are faring.
The college uses three main funding streams to support the work of the Student Care Network. Institutional funds support salaries, training, and professional development of college staff who work in basic needs, health services, counseling, and Student Care coordination. Federal grant funding like TRIO and, because it is a Hispanic-serving institution, Title III and V of the Higher Education Act supports particular programs or projects, usually for a set period of time. Finally, the college’s foundation raises funds from donors to support the provision of basic needs.
Growing into the future, Cruz has three main goals for the Student Care Network: to create a sustainable endowment for emergency grant aid; create temporary, emergency housing on campus; and expand child care access. He said, “I'm looking at what we've done and what we've accomplished. We've done great things. But we can improve and move forward to Dallas College basic needs 2.0.”
Working with the college foundation, the Student Care Network is preparing for annual capital campaigns to fund an emergency aid fund. Research shows that students who are living close to the poverty line can be thrown out of school by one emergency expense like a car repair. Having access to small amounts of cash—between $500 and $1,000—from the college can help keep these students enrolled. With pandemic emergency funds, the federal government provided much-needed resources for grants like this. But with the expiration of that funding, the Dallas College Foundation is focused on raising money for its specially-dedicated Emergency Aid Fund and is looking for ways to develop long-term, sustainable funding streams to support this aid.
Housing insecurity is one of the most difficult problems the college has to tackle. It is working to secure students housing vouchers through the Dallas Housing Authority. But Cruz said he also wants to work on “providing emergency shelter that we own and invest in to provide as a resource for our students when they are sleeping in their cars.” To do this, the Network is exploring a grant to purchase mobile homes to place on campuses across the city to provide temporary, emergency housing to students in crisis.
Cruz and his team have heard the need for more child care support from students accessing the Student Care Network. In response, the college is working to add two more on-campus options so they have citywide coverage.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown the need for additional support for college students in the area of basic needs. The provision of significant federal and philanthropic funding to support students holistically made a tremendous difference for community college students across the country during the pandemic. But connecting students to the resources they need is more important than ever. Dallas College has prioritized the coordination, standardization, and sustainability of these efforts.
To address increasing economic precarity in the United States, community colleges are often left to patch holes and coordinate our tattered social safety net for their students. For colleges to do this better, we have two sets of recommendations.
States should consider:
- Creating a designation process that certifies structured, early college programs meet a set of quality criteria and are continuing to improve. They should also create a challenge fund that is only available to fund certified programs.
- Designing funding streams to support the basic needs of community college students through programs like emergency grant aid, child care subsidies, and navigators.
- Making existing safety net programs like Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and Temporary Aid to Needy Families more student-friendly.
Community colleges should consider:
- Creating more structured models for student dual enrollment and support systems for recruiting students to the programs with equity at the center. Colleges should also connect high school students on college campuses and their parents to support services as needed.
- Conducting a gap analysis to see what student needs are not being met and setting up services or referral processes to address those needs. Colleges should also ensure access across the geographic area they serve. Colleges can manage partnerships with service partner organizations through clear points of contact, MOUs, and advisory committee meetings.
- Creating a coordinated point of contact at the college for students who need services.
The mighty struggle to keep students engaged in the wake of the COVID pandemic continues. Exacerbated economic insecurity makes doing that even more difficult. States and colleges should consider implementing the effective strategies Texas and Dallas College has pioneered.
This paper benefited from the insights of many, including LaQuesha Foster, dean of education partnerships and Carlos E. Cruz, dean of Student Care Network and Basic Needs at Dallas College. Thanks to New America colleagues Mary Alice McCarthy, Kevin Carey, and Sabrina Detlef for their editorial insight. Riker Pasterkiewicz and Fabio Murgia provided layout and communication support. This work would not have been possible without the generous support of Annie E. Casey Foundation. Addressing America’s Affordability Crisis by Helping Young People Earn College Credentials & Connect to Careers