What if all community colleges took Perimeter’s approach to student belonging?

As two-year colleges nationwide work to boost graduation rates and close opportunity gaps, Atlanta’s Perimeter College has emerged as a national model for supporting students—and a testament to the importance of community-building. Writing in The Washington Post, David Kirp, a senior fellow at the California-based Learning Policy Institute, says that Perimeter’s experience shows how “the smart use of evidence-tested practices” can help resource-constrained community colleges “make an outsized difference in graduation rates.”

A telling trajectory

Six years ago, Perimeter merged with nearby Georgia State University—a four-year institution that has been widely recognized for its approach to student support. At the time, just 6 percent of Perimeter’s 27,000 students completed their degree within three years, and white students were 2.5 times more likely to earn a degree than Black students.

But after translating Georgia State’s proven strategies to the community college environment, Perimeter logged dramatic improvements. Now, more than 8 in 10 of its full-time students have graduated, have transferred, or remain enrolled three years after coming to Perimeter. Moreover, the college has eliminated disparities in graduation rates between the overall student body and Black, Latinx, and low-income students.

Sustained effort to ensure students know they’re supported

Kirp credits these gains to Perimeter’s “laserlike focus on enhancing students’ sense of belonging” through community-building. “We’re relentless,” Tim Renick, the founding executive director of Georgia State’s National Institute for Student Success, told Kirp. “We tell the students that we won’t let you fall.”

For students identified as academically at-risk, Perimeter starts the conversation well before their freshman year, inviting them to take seven credit hours during the summer. Once the academic year begins, Perimeter assigns all freshmen to small learning communities based on their likely major. Students in the same learning community take the same classes during their first semester, helping the group bond.

Knowing that freshmen tend to listen to students with similar experiences, the college taps upperclassmen to serve as tutors in tough courses. A chatbot further fields questions and prompts students to complete needed paperwork—a tool shown to substantially increase registration rates. Perimeter also closely monitors student performance, proactively intervening with advising sessions—and no-strings emergency microgrants—as needed to keep students on track to complete their degree.

Related: 5 opportunities to build first-gen students’ sense of belonging at Georgetown >

Students graduate from Perimeter having had a number of career-oriented experiences and knowing that every course will transfer seamlessly to Georgia State should they want to continue on and earn a bachelor’s degree.

Pilot program drives even greater gains

Hypothesizing that a truly “bells-and-whistles educational experience” could drive students’ graduation rates even higher, Perimeter four years ago launched its LIFT (Learning, Income, and Family Transformation) program. In addition to the standard schoolwide services, participating students receive free tuition, financial support for living expenses, career-oriented internships, a dedicated advisor, and additional academic coaching.

LIFT students—who are all Pell-eligible, graduates of poor-performing Atlanta high schools, and from backgrounds underrepresented in higher education—also stay together in learning communities throughout their time at Perimeter. After their first year, they have opportunities to serve as leaders and mentors to incoming freshmen.

Overall, the program costs Perimeter an additional $3,000 per student. Of the 136 participants thus far, 92 percent have earned an associate’s degree in three years. Almost 90 percent are on track to earn a bachelor’s degree, and 70 percent have received both degrees in four years. Nationally, 41 percent of undergraduates earn a bachelor’s degree in that timeframe.

Looking ahead, Renick’s National Institute for Student Success at Georgia State hopes to share and refine these strategies in collaboration with other schools across the nation. “Imagine the impact on the dropout problem if every college student received a LIFT-caliber education,” Kirp writes, adding “let’s hope that other universities pay attention.”

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