Retention Barriers Outside of the Classroom: A Community Schools Approach

Katy E. Troester-Trate
Innovation Showcase

Student retention and persistence have become areas of intense focus for college administrators in recent years. The growing concern with student retention is in part due to the recently declining number of high school graduates nationwide (Mertes & Jakoviak, 2016; Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, 2012). A decreasing number of high school graduates often means fewer potential students eligible to enroll in an institution of higher education (Mertes & Jakoviak, 2016; Troester-Trate, 2017). Enrollment numbers for all types of higher education institutions have declined 1.4 percent from fall 2015 to fall 2016 (National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, 2016a). This decline is not a new concern, as college enrollment also declined 1.7 percent from fall 2014 to fall 2015 (National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, 2015). The focus, therefore, is not only how to attract new students, but also how to keep students who are already enrolled (Seidman, 2012; Skyline College, 2013; Troester-Trate, 2017).

Historically, community colleges have lower completion and retention rates than their four-year counterparts. This is in part due to use of retention models that were designed for four-year institutions rather than community colleges (Hongwei, 2015; Mertes & Hoover, 2014; Zhang, 2016). Community college students often face 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, lack of resources such as food, transportation, and childcare. The prevalence of these barriers may greatly impact a student’s ability to succeed and persist in higher education (Cady, 2014; Finkel, 2016; Goldrick-Rab, Broton, & Eisenberg, 2013; Goldrick-Rab, Broton, & Gates, 2015; Institute for College Access & Success, 2016; Maroto, Snelling, & Linck, 2015; Troester-Trate, 2017).

Community colleges enroll over 40 percent of traditional college-age students who are living below the poverty line (Goldrick-Rab, Broton, & Gates, 2013). Although low-income students are currently enrolling in higher education at a rate similar to those from higher socioeconomic groups (p. 2), they are less likely to complete their degree goals due to additional financial barriers they may encounter while enrolled in classes (Goldrick-Rab, Broton, & Gates, 2013; Troester-Trate, 2017).

When compared to students attending four-year institutions, the diverse demographics of students attending community colleges may also account for some of the differences in retention rates. Many community college students are categorized as nontraditional students. These students are typically over the age of 24, are parents or caregivers, and may work full- or part time (Davidson, 2015; Forbus, Newbold, & Mehta, 2011; Gault, Reichlin, & Roman, 2014).

A significant number of nontraditional students also identify themselves as single parents, a group that often struggles to meet the financial needs of themselves and their families (Gilardi & Guglielmetti, 2011; Gault, Reichlin, & Román, 2014; Pleasants McDonnell, Soricone, & Sheen, 2014). The delicate balance of work and school is compounded by the struggle to find affordable and convenient childcare (Graham & Bassett, 2012; Pleasants McDonnell, Soricone, & Sheen, 2014; Troester-Trate, 2017). Parenting students tend to experience more difficulties in completing and remaining enrolled in college courses (Gault, Reichlin, & Román, 2014; Pleasants McDonnell, Soricone, & Sheen, 2014; Troester-Trate, 2017).

In addition, it is critical to examine the financial instability of low-income college students in terms of food insecurity and transportation barriers. Food insecurity among undergraduate students impacts 20 percent of those currently enrolled (Goldrick-Rab, Broton, & Eisenberg, 2015). Cady (2014) proposed that food insecurity among college students impacts overall academic performance, well-being in the campus community, or general behavior. These factors contribute significantly to student retention (Cady, 2014; Goldrick-Rab & Eisenberg, 2015; Troester-Trate, 2017).

Addressing the Problem

To address the perceived barriers of low-income students, and to increase degree attainment and/or persistence rates in New York State, Governor Andrew Cuomo launched a community school model initiative (New York State, 2016). Historically, the community school model was developed for the K-12 school system. The goal of a community school model is to address social, academic, community, and health needs of public school students who may not have access to these services in their own community (Coalition of Community Schools, 2016; Troester-Trate, 2017). The expansion of this model to the community college environment addresses these same needs in community college students.

The community schools initiative’s goal is to increase degree attainment by New York State community college students by providing on-campus resources to address the child-care, unmet physical and/or mental health needs, and other resource deficits (New York State, 2016). Among the three initial schools selected to pilot this model, Jefferson Community College in Upstate New York received grant funding to start a community school on campus. The Jefferson Community School (JCS) program was designed to provide additional mental and physical health needs, transportation assistance, childcare assistance, food pantry services, and on-campus access to over 15 community providers with the idea that providing services on campus increases student access to these services and, thus, reaches a greater percentage of the population. The goal of JCS is to increase retention and persistence by removing barriers to completion for rural community college students (Troester-Trate, 2017).


The purpose of this study was to determine if JCS program participation increased a student’s likelihood of persisting. Students were considered to have persisted if they completed at least 50 percent of their fall 2016 courses. Students were considered retained if they registered for at least one course in spring 2017, if they graduated at the end of the fall 2016 semester, or if they had transferred to another institution of higher education at the end of the fall 2016 term (Troester-Trate, 2017).

The participants in this study were selected for one of two 45-student sample groups: JCS program participants and non-participants. Enrollment in the JCS program was defined as having used one or more of the following services: food pantry, transportation, and childcare services (Troester-Trate, 2017). Participants in the non-JCS group were selected from the institution’s Banner database for the fall 2016 term based on matching age, gender, and Pell status to those to the JCS group. Thirty JCS students were retained, compared to 30 non-JCS students; 41 JCS students and 42 non-JCS students persisted in fall 2016 (Troester-Trate, 2017).


The students that presented at JCS were either contemplating leaving college or were progressively withdrawing from their classes. Testimonials from students enrolled in the JCS program indicated that program services addressed their needs so that they could continue to attend or return to attending classes. Instead of these students leaving or missing classes, they were retained and persisted at almost the exact rate of their peers who potentially were not experiencing these life challenges (Troester-Trate, 2017).

The findings of this study align with existing research and expand the body of literature that deems nonacademic supports as an effective retention and persistence strategy for institutions of higher education (Troester-Trate, 2017). When students struggle with the consequences of poverty, such as food insecurity, lack of transportation resources, or inadequate childcare, they are less likely to succeed or remain in college (Goldrick-Rab, Broton, & Eisenberg, 2015; Pierce, 2016). Hongwei (2015) proposed that a lack of nonacademic resources was a more significant predictor of student withdrawal than academic issues.

According to Davidson (2015), the JCS sample students should have had a lower retention and persistence rate than the non-JCS students due to the financial barriers they experienced (Cady, 2014; Gilardi & Guglielmetti, 2011; Goldrick-Rab, Broton, & Eisenberg, 2015; Goldrick-Rab, Broton, & Gates, 2013; Troester-Trate, 2017). However, students who utilized the JCS program were retained and persisted at the same rate as their non-JCS peers. This implies that the JCS program, or similar programs designed to address nonacademic needs, may be effective at equalizing the chance of at-risk students being retained or persisting. Despite the increased obstacles, JCS students were still able to stay enrolled in college and/or complete their degree program (Troester-Trate, 2017).

Next Steps

There are many opportunities for future research based on this current study in terms of the JCS program specifically, but on a macro level as well. Future JCS research, for instance, should include data from the entire program term—January of 2016 to a projected end of January 2019. Although there is minimal participation during the summer semester, the program is in operation year-round. Future research could include data from summer semesters as well. The JCS program was made possible by a three-year grant, and, thus, conducting a similar study at the end of the grant term may provide different results when a larger time frame of services is analyzed. Including the entire three-year time frame would also allow for a larger sample and, thus, provide a greater level of reliability. Additionally, this study did not include the JCS services outside of food pantry, transportation, and childcare (Troester-Trate, 2017). The JCS program also includes physical and mental health services, veteran services, and over 15 community partner resources in its entirety. Future research could be developed to include all services to determine if the program as a whole is effective in improving student retention or persistence. Future research may also include GPA as an additional measure of success for at-risk students.

This topic will be discussed at a breakout session at the Innovations Conference on Wednesday, March 21, 2018. See the event program for details.


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

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