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Community colleges, nonprofits partner to help adult learners

Chinara Arthur, a newly licensed 28-year old nurse, likens the past few months to being on a roller-coaster.

Since graduating in December with an associate's degree in nursing from Mott Community College (MCC), she has studied for — and passed — her state nursing boards, taken a full-time job as an emergency room nurse and begun working on her bachelor's degree in nursing at the UM-Flint.

Arthur chalks up her success largely to the support she received through MCC's Workforce Education Center, which works with local nonprofit partners to help adult learners traverse the college experience and land living-wage jobs.

"It's hard to be a single parent and go to school. Things come up all the time," said Arthur, who has a 4-year-old daughter, Jerzi. "I'm just glad they were there to help me."

MCC is one of six community colleges around the country participating in the Courses to Employment Initiative, a three-year demonstration managed by the Workforce Strategies Initiative (WSI) at the Aspen Institute in Washington, D.C.

Designed to provide insight into how the second generation of sectoral employment programs involving partnerships between community colleges and workforce nonprofits operate, WSI worked with each partnership to identify a learning agenda and a data collection approach to document program outcomes.

The Mott Foundation's support for the demonstration, including two years of planning research, has been $4.4 million since 2006.

Key lessons emerging from the six-site working group have been documented through a series of reports. The most recent, entitled The Price of Persistence: How Non-profit Community College Partnerships Manage and Blend Diverse Funding Streams, provides an analysis of the interrelations between financial resources and program activities at the participating community colleges.

As noted in the new report, community colleges like MCC are playing an ever-larger role in helping workers improve their skills for today's jobs. Drawing on multiple public, private and philanthropic funding streams, these colleges and their nonprofit partners are working to weave together the critical financial aid and other resources that help low-income, low-skilled adult learners such as Arthur move into living-wage employment.

"Community colleges don't necessarily have all of the resources to do the career counseling, employment networking or case management services that low-income people need to stay in school and transition to work," said Maureen Conway, executive director of Aspen's Economic Opportunities Program. "By braiding funding sources together, the partnerships are making sure that these students have what they need to succeed."

For example, while community colleges help students complete the education and training they need to qualify for a skilled job, the nonprofit partners usually help them develop needed life skills and navigate the local job market.

Many adult learners under financial pressure can get help from community colleges with tuition, fees and books. But frequently other complications arise, ranging from problems paying for childcare, transportation, rent or utilities to more thorny issues such as domestic violence or health concerns.

Arthur says by the time she earned her associate's degree, MCC and its partners had helped pay for her tuition and books and aided her in avoiding eviction when she fell behind on her rent.

Robert Matthews, executive dean for Workforce and Career Development at MCC, said the college often works with adults who are returning to school or newly unemployed, helping them apply for school, complete assessments and explore available financial supports.

"A large part of what we're doing behind the scenes is always looking for additional funding streams that can help to support students," he said.

Some community colleges lack MCC's capacity to play such an active role in addressing individual student needs. For those schools, partnerships with the local nonprofit sector can help bridge the resulting gap.

Such is the case with Capital IDEA, a nonprofit based in Austin, Texas. One of two Courses to Employment participants featured in a recent short film, Putting Adult Learners on the Road to Success, Capital IDEA has collaborated with Austin Community College to offer underserved students a multi-year academic program that can lead to rewarding careers.

Participants can get help with English as a second language, as well as boost their skills in math, reading and writing before beginning training in the high technology, professional trades or health care sectors.

Steve Jackobs, executive director of Capital IDEA, says that while city and county support for the programs has been stable, the challenge is to have "diverse types and sources of funding streams so that when one dries up, there are others that can fill the need."

To that end, Capital IDEA pays for the participants' tuition, fees and books, and offers them help with job placement, obtaining childcare and transportation and dealing with unexpected financial emergencies. It also develops relationships with local employers to identify careers that offer both living wages and career opportunities for its adult learners.

While the approach to combining funding and other resources varies considerably among the school and community partnerships, the one constant is the difference that nonprofits can make in helping meet students' needs.

"By connecting with good nonprofit partners," Conway said, "the schools are much better positioned to help students cross the finish line and graduate with the credentials that open doors to jobs."

As for Arthur, though her journey is not through, she is grateful for the support and counseling she has received along the way from the MCC collaborative.

"I felt so blessed to be in that program," she said.

(Note: This report is provided as a service to our readers and a service to the group or individual mentioned in the release. Usually, only minor editing is done. The group or individual is responsible for all information provided.)

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