Beyond Bus Passes: Colleges Need Systemic Path to Student Success

Helping students find postsecondary success begins an institutional commitment to creating a culture of caring that drives decision making across the institution. Once that commitment is in place, the institution needs to understand student needs, then take a system-level approach to meeting those needs.

This was the message from Cara Crowley, special advisor to the chancellor for basic needs systems at Austin (Texas) Community College District, during the most recent session of the Michigan-Regional Adult Initiative for Skills and Education (MI-RAISE) Design Lab. The series is organized by The Michigan Center of Adult College Success , an initiative of TalentFirst.

Speaking to leaders from postsecondary institutions from across Michigan, Crowley shared the insights she gained from Texas community college efforts that have succeeded in helping students overcome barriers to postsecondary completion.

Before moving to Austin Community College this year, Crowley served in a number of roles at Amarillo College, which in 2023 was co-recipient of the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence , the premier national award for two-year colleges working to change students’ lives.

Amarillo College has one the nation’s fastest-improving completion rates while serving a region with high poverty and low rates of educational attainment. By developing wraparound systems based on student needs, the college’s graduation and transfer rates nearly tripled over the past 10 years.

Among the advice Crowley shared with Michigan educators:

  • Know who your students are. Assess student needs. (For example, Amarillo College developed a set of values that were created by students.)
  • Learn your data. (For example, know the timeframe when the average student drops out.)
  • Only fund what fits the Theory of Change:
    • Removing a life barrier
    • In an accelerated learning environment
    • Through a deep culture of caring
  • “Don’t bury what you do in bureaucracy. Do it for the students.”
  • Businesses need trained workers. Let the businesses know what students need and they will help support it — childcare, for example.
  • Build basic needs supports on grants. Use the grant period to find permanent budget support by the end of the grant.
  • Grants are a great way to take risks because it is OK to fail and apply lessons learned.
  • Basic needs support requires a system — not just a boutique program that provides a bus card or food pantry.
  • Connect students to outside resources. (Amarillo College, for example, has 60 nonprofit collaborators.)
  • Hire social workers to administer basic needs programs.

Adult college success in Michigan

The MI-Raise Design Labs were established to help postsecondary institutions across Michigan to develop innovative approaches for adult postsecondary success. Equipped with these insights, institutions will be prepared to apply for grants to launch innovative pilots:

  • Last week, The Michigan Center for Adult College Success published the application for its Innovation Investment Awards , a $5 million program that will provide grants up to $1 million for Michigan colleges and universities that show they are ready to launch effective, lasting improvements to systems that help students 25 and older obtain postsecondary credentials.
  • The awards are intended to augment the student success grants being administered by Michigan’s Office of Sixty by 30.

Increasing completion rates in a significant way is neither a simple nor quick process. It begins with creating a steadfast commitment to student success and infusing that culture of caring systematically across all facets of the institution.

The experiences and lessons learned from Amarillo College provide a roadmap for our institutions to follow on how they too can make significant progress in helping more adult learners obtain the credentials they need to thrive.


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