Breaking Down Nonacademic Barriers: Outcomes From the First Two Years of a Community School Approach

Katy Troester-Trate
Innovation Showcase

Historically, community colleges have lower completion and retention rates than their four-year counterparts. Hongwei (2015) suggested that this is in part due to the fact that leading retention models were designed for four-year institutions, not community colleges. Community college students often face unique nonacademic barriers which impact their retention and persistence rates (Goldrick-Rab, Broton, & Eisenberg, 2013; Goldrick-Rab, Broton, & Gates, 2015; Hongwei, 2015; Troester-Trate, 2017). Such barriers include, but are not limited to, a lack of resources such as food, transportation, and adequate childcare (Troester-Trate, 2017).

To reduce the barriers often encountered by low-income students in New York State, Governor Andrew Cuomo launched a community school model initiative in 2016 (New York State, 2016; Troester-Trate, 2017). The initiative’s goal was to increase degree attainment of the state’s community college students by providing on-campus resources to address unmet child care, health, and mental health needs, and other resource deficits (New York State, 2016; Troester-Trate, 2017). As part of the pilot, Jefferson Community College (JCC) in Upstate New York received grant funding to start a community school on campus.

Jefferson Community School

Jefferson Community School (JCS) opened in JCC’s Health & Wellness Center in 2016. The JCS program offers on-campus services such as health, mental health, psychiatric, food pantry, transportation, and childcare assistance. In addition, community partners provide on-campus services as well as a streamlined referral process for more extensive off-campus services. The goal of this comprehensive approach to student wellness is to increase students’ access to services that may otherwise be difficult to obtain. Examples of services provided are outlined in the next sections.

Veteran Services

Community colleges are experiencing an enrollment surge in military and veteran student populations because of the flexible and low-cost option they offer to transitioning military personnel (De La Garza, Manuel, Wood, & Harris, 2016; Evans, Pellegrino, & Hoggan, 2015). Due to their age, marital or family status, and/or minority status, many veteran students are considered nontraditional (Heineman, 2016; McBain, Cook, & Snead, 2012). To address their needs at JCC, the Watertown Vet Center offers appointments at JCS so that veterans no longer have to juggle off-campus appointments with their busy class schedules. Between 2016 and 2017, the JCS program served over 300 veterans with services ranging from benefits assistance, vocational rehabilitation, and counseling.

Transportation Services

Low-income individuals, particularly those from rural areas, often struggle to get from place to place, including school, work, medical appointments, and the grocery store. This typically means that these individuals are limited by the availability and reliability of friends and family to meet their transportation needs (Combs et al, 2016, Kolodinsky et al., 2013; Shay et al., 2016). JCS, in collaboration with 17 community partners, provides transportation vouchers to students who do not have adequate means of getting to and from classes to attend necessary medical appointments in the community.

Food Services

In 2016, the JCS Food Pantry served 87 students. This number doubled in 2017, with 171 students accessing these services. In addition to traditional food pantry items, the food pantry now offers personal items such as toilet paper, toothbrushes, feminine hygiene products, and shampoo. Moreover, the center distributed 22 Thanksgiving baskets last year and will strive to provide similar baskets to at least 30 student families in 2018.

Community School Model

A recent research study explored the quantitative impact of removing nonacademic barriers on the retention and persistence of community college students in northern New York (Troester-Trate, 2017). Based on anecdotal testimonials from JCS participants, a significant number of the students who utilized JCS services were either contemplating leaving college or were progressively withdrawing from their classes (Troester-Trate, 2017). However, JCS program services addressed the needs of these students so that they could continue to attend or return to classes at almost the same rate as peers who may not have experienced the same barriers. Study data show that an identical rate (67 percent) of JCS and non-JCS students were retained for the following semester. In addition, 41 (91 percent) JCS students and 42 (93 percent) non-JCS students completed fall 2016 semester coursework (Troester-Trate, 2017).

In the U.S., approximately 60 percent of community college students were retained during the 2012-2013 academic year compared to 80 percent of traditional students attending a four-year institution (National Center for Education Statistics, 2015). The JCS sample students—who were nontraditional, and therefore, at-risk—should have had lower retention and persistence rates than students who did not access JCS services (Cady, 2014; Gilardi & Guglielmetti, 2011; Goldrick-Rab, Broton, & Eisenberg, 2015; Goldrick-Rab, Broton, & Gates, 2013; Troester-Trate, 2017). In fact, the retention rate of JCS students from fall 2016 to spring 2017 was slightly higher than national community college retention rates (Troester-Trate, 2017).

The community school model seeks to meet the unique needs of community college students, and, thus, to retain these students at a higher rate than in the past. The results of the recent study of students in northern New York showed a positive relationship between engagement in JCS services and an almost equal retention and persistence rate to those students who did not use supportive services (Troester-Trate, 2017). The overall goal of the JCS program is not only to help the students of Jefferson Community College, but also to inspire other community college campuses as they seek a model to address the critical nonacademic needs of their students.


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Dr. Katy E. Troester-Trate, EdD, LCSW is Director of Jefferson Community Schools at Jefferson Community College in Watertown, New York.

Opinions expressed in Innovation Showcase are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.