The Martin Scholars Program: Building Connections to Support Degree Completion
January 2014, Volume 27, Number 1
By Jay Parrent
A trained and qualified workforce is an essential resource for economic development. Communities have recognized the need for citizens with college degrees to both entice new industry and to provide current industries the workforce necessary to maintain or increase current levels of production. Efforts to increase the educational attainment of communities have involved various public and private partnerships engaged in awareness campaigns and other activities to spur completion. One example of a recent and successful combination of community college efforts and private foundation support has been the Martin Scholars Program at Madisonville Community College.
Building Martin Scholars
According to the 2007-2011 American Community Survey (U.S. Census Bureau), the percentage of adults in Kentucky over the age of 25 with an associate’s degree or higher currently rests at 27.4 percent. This is considerably lower than the national average of 35.8 percent and below other Southern Regional Educational Board states. Located in the service area of Madisonville Community College, Muhlenberg County has an educational attainment rate for adults with a minimum of an associate’s degree of 17.4 percent. The need to increase education attainment in the county is acute. As in many other parts of Kentucky, the local economy is, and has been traditionally, based heavily on the coal industry. The boom and bust cycle of the industry has been difficult on the region. Generations of miners have been able to make a comfortable, middle-class living from mining. As a result, many young people fail to see the importance of education with the mines as a viable option, most notably for male students. As the future of the industry becomes uncertain, the need for educational opportunities has become more important.
The Felix E. Martin, Jr. Foundation was created in 2008 through the estate of Mr. Martin, a long-time resident of Muhlenberg County, Kentucky. The mission of the Foundation is to provide support to organizations that enrich the cultural, civic, and educational needs of the residents of the county. Grants from the Martin Foundation have funded important projects to address the quality of life in the county and have provided a measure of hope and vision that the community can grow from its reliance on coal and energy production to expand the local economy.
Created by Kathy Jacobi, president of the Foundation, and Jay Parrent, chief student affairs officer at Madisonville Community College, the Martin Scholars program was launched as an incentive program to entice students who have stopped out of their education back into the community college ranks to work toward completion of an associate degree. The target group for these efforts was students not currently enrolled in the Kentucky community college system who had earned at least 30 credit hours and who were in good academic and financial standing, over the age of 25, and current residents of Muhlenberg County. The Martin Foundation provided stipends of $250 to students who met these criteria and who attained at least a 2.0 GPA at mid-term. Throughout these students’ attendance, an adviser was assigned to provide intrusive support to ensure they make progress toward earning their credentials. Upon graduation, the Martin Foundation will provide a graduation bonus of $400 to these students. These incentive payments have been quite effective, since the funds go directly to the students and not through the business office and college procedures. This process eliminates red tape and allows students to use the funds to eliminate potential barriers such as transportation, child-care, and living expenses.
The college undertook an extensive data mining process in the student information system to locate students from the county who had attended an institution within the Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS) during the past decade and who met the program’s eligibility requirements. From this list, letters were mailed to potentially eligible students, and radio and newspaper advertisements, were used to raise awareness of this outstanding opportunity for county residents. In addition, as stopouts returned to the college, they were made aware of the benefits of the program by student affairs staff housed at the county’s campus site.
Since the launch of the program in the summer of 2012, 60 stipend payments have been made to student participants in six semesters. The high for participation thus far has been 19 students in the fall 2012 term. Many students have been continuously enrolled since returning to college, and persistence rates for Martin Scholars have remained high. The effort has produced four additional college graduates who would not have otherwise completed their degree.
Recommendations for Practice
The incentive award has proven to be a key tool for recruitment of near completers. Awarding even a small stipend to a community college student can have a major impact on that student’s likelihood to persist to completion. Child care expenses, a car repair, or any number of problems can be serious impediments for students. By circumventing college business office procedures, funds can get to students quickly and be put to use as needed.
Holding regular Martin Scholars meetings has also had a positive impact on student persistence. The Martin Scholars meet at least twice each semester for lunch and are given the opportunity to provide feedback to administrators while hearing about college programs, services, and opportunities for transfer. Student development topics such as transfer planning, career planning, and study skills have been addressed in these sessions.
The potential for building connections with students and providing incentives for both reenrollment and graduation hold tremendous promise as strategies for increasing degree completion and maintaining an educated and flexible workforce for the economies of tomorrow. The partnership between the Felix E. Martin, Jr. Foundation and Madisonville Community College has been a productive example of how the common interests of creating a skilled and learned workforce can come to fruition in a rural area that needs the support.
U.S. Census Bureau. (2007-2011). American Community Survey. Retrieved from http://quickfacts.census.gov
Jay Parrent is the Chief Student Affairs Officer at Madisonville Community College in Kentucky.
Opinions expressed in Leadership Abstracts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.