The student success dividend: Colleges that double down on their students will thrive in the long-term

New federal data suggest that hunger and homelessness among college students are more widespread than previously believed. As many as 4 million college students are wrestling with food insecurity — a factor associated with lower graduation rates — and 1.5 million might have tenuous housing situations. These survey results validate what many have been saying for years: colleges must do a better job of addressing students’ basic needs.






Given the steep financial barriers to accessing and completing college, it is, perhaps, no surprise that more Americans are questioning the price of college and the return on their education investment. Although the public generally views community colleges favorably, students seem unsure of the value of even these highly affordable institutions, where enrollment is just beginning to rebound from declines before and during the Covid pandemic.

More than low tuition

While these two trends seem unrelated, we believe that access to adequate basic needs and trust in higher education are, in fact, tightly intertwined. Changing the value equation of college requires an approach that goes further than simply lowering the price of tuition and books or forgiving student loans. Increasingly, it’s about meeting the needs of today’s very different learners, who are likely to work, study part-time or have family caregiving responsibilities. The personal toll and high financial cost of college can seem to outweigh the long-term benefits of earning a degree for today’s students.

Meeting the complex needs of students comes with a cost. Implementing wraparound student services and personnel to provide academic, career, mental health and other services certainly adds to the bottom line, especially when institutions are under intense pressure to hold down tuition and expenditures. However, these supports can generate powerful and positive student success and financial outcomes that are often overlooked.

There’s a growing body of evidence that investments in holistic student support programs pay for themselves over time — and more than justify their cost through savings to students, the institution, taxpayers and our social services system. We call it the “student success dividend.”

When students finish in a timely manner, they save money and more quickly advance into a career that will move them up the economic ladder. For institutions, greater student success pays off through improved retention, higher enrollment and increased net tuition revenue. Investing in wraparound services designed to support students from low-income and underrepresented backgrounds is not only a moral imperative that improves student outcomes but also a sound financial decision essential to the sustainability of institutions.

Yielding results

Consider the case of Hudson County Community College in New Jersey (where Reber is president). The college created the Hudson Scholars program in 2021 precisely to generate a student success dividend. Hudson Scholars meet regularly with dedicated academic counselors with intentionally low caseloads. Scholars receive financial stipends of up to $625 per semester to help them pay for college. The first cohort passed 90% of their classes, and 99% of participating students who met their counselors monthly during their first semester returned for a second semester. This program has scaled rapidly, from 800 participants at launch to more than 2,000 students today.

In Chicago, One Million Degrees (where Sohoni is CEO) has provided systematic and comprehensive supports — tutors, coaches, financial assistance and professional development — to students from low-income backgrounds at 10 community colleges in the City Colleges of Chicago district. Early results from an ongoing study show that these early interventions increased both overall and full-time enrollment and first-year persistence among participating students. Degree completion rates for participants who moved directly from high school to college increased by 73% compared to their peers.

The financial benefits are promising, too. With more students persisting, City Colleges of Chicago receives an additional $3,000 in tuition per retained student. For every 1,000 graduates, the program will generate aggregate annual increases in lifetime earnings of $42 million, contributing to the local tax base and community.

Other studies are beginning to quantify the student success dividend. A research study by basic needs scholars Katharine M. Broton, Milad Mohebali, and Sara Goldrick-Rab found that students at Bunker Hill Community College (Massachusetts) with access to a meal voucher program attempted and completed more credits and were significantly more likely to graduate than their similar peers.

A growing movement

With more and more data to make the case, institutions across the country are increasingly recognizing they must commit themselves to addressing students’ most basic needs. The University of Utah operates a Basic Needs Collective that serves as a referral center and resource database for student needs ranging from food and health care to transportation and child care. All 10 campuses of the University of California System, and a growing number of institutions across the country, employ a director of student basic needs to address food, housing and financial insecurity that many of their students are experiencing.

These are all examples of how prioritizing investments in holistic student support can pay dividends — and a quantifiable return for students, institutions and society as a whole. In this increasingly challenging economic environment, institutions that choose austerity will sacrifice long-term viability for short-term financial gains. But colleges that double down on supporting student well-being and success are aligning themselves with the core values of higher education and securing a prosperous future for both individuals and institutions alike.

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Dr. Chris Reber is president of Hudson County Community College in New Jersey.

Aneesh Sohoni is CEO of One Million Degrees, an organization that accelerates community college students’ progress on career pathways to economic mobility.