College access? Check. College success? You bet
Going to college wasn’t an expectation when Breana Rocha was growing up. No one in her family had ever been to college. The process seemed intimidating, and she always thought it was financially out of reach for her family.
But that all changed her sophomore year at Abraham Lincoln High School in Council Bluffs. The school was participating in a new program for low-income students that would help her prepare for college while in high school and provide support services during college. And here’s the kicker – the program would also cover the full cost, including room and board, for her to earn an associate degree or other credit credential at Iowa Western Community College.
“I realized that my family wasn’t going to be able to afford college,” Breana said. “I would be first generation on my mom’s side of the family. On my dad’s side, poor decisions led to drugs and crime. But when I heard about the program, I thought it was the perfect opportunity to try it, to get my foot in the door.”
Called the Pottawattamie Promise, the program currently serves students from six school districts: Council Bluffs; Riverside; Lewis Central; Avoca, Hancock, Shelby, Tennant, Walnut (AHSTW); and Tri-Center, with plans underway to expand to all Pottawattamie County school districts by 2020. The initiative focuses on minimizing barriers to college access and completion by providing full-ride scholarships for students to attend Iowa Western Community College and wraparound support services to ensure success.
The initiative began in 2015 through a partnership between Iowa Western Community College, Pottawattamie County school districts, the Iowa West Foundation, AKSARBEN Foundation and the Peter Kiewit Foundation. There are an estimated 200 such promise programs, often called free college programs, throughout the United States.
In Iowa, there is an emphasis on ensuring students are career and college ready by the time they graduate from high school. Initiatives such as the statewide Future Ready Iowa underscore this.
Pottawattamie Promise embraces this, and focuses not only on college access, but college success.
“We don’t call it a scholarship because it is so much more than that,” said Tori Christie, vice president of student services at Iowa Western Community College. “Finances are just one barrier these students face. This program is about preparation, access, affordability and success.”
Is it successful? You be the judge. Pottawattamie Promise students have higher high school and college grade point averages than their peers. The college retention rate from fall to spring for these students is 12 percent higher than that of other first-time, full-time students. The three-year college graduation rate is higher, too – 23 percent higher.
Students can apply for the program during their sophomore year of high school. Preference is given to first-generation, low-income students who fall in the academic middle and for whom college would not be possible without scholarships and support services. Part of the selection process includes an interview with high school and college representatives.
“The purpose of the interview is two-fold,” Christie said. “While the interview helps with the selection process, it also serves to ensure that students understand being part of the program is a commitment.”
Students selected for Pottawattamie Promise are required to take college-level courses during their junior and senior years, including statistics and strategies for academic success, which is a three-credit hour college readiness course. This not only introduces students to the academic rigor of college, but also provides some flexibility in the number of credits they need to take when they enroll at Iowa Western.
Pottawattamie Promise students also receive tailored and targeted supports to help them succeed. This includes career exploration and planning, proactive (also known as intrusive) advising, co-curricular supports and a summer series which aims to smooth the transition from high school to college. When possible, students are placed together in campus housing to ease the transition.
“I would have been really intimidated to go to college on my own,” Breana said. “Being part of Pottawattamie Promise made a difference. Making connections, having a support system, it’s very important.”
The support services continue throughout their time at Iowa Western. Specialized orientation keeps the students together as a group. College advisors are very deliberate when working with the students to ensure they take advantage of academic tutoring, writing and math labs, and other interventions to help them build a growth mindset.
“We recognize that we have to do more than just say that support services exist,” Christie said. “We have interventions in place before they fall off track. If we reach a point where a student fails at a class, then we did something wrong.”
A management committee comprised of administrators and counselors from each school district, as well as Iowa Western Community College, meet regularly to continually improve and evolve the program to best support students. For instance, mental health education has been added to the summer series, and families, not just the students, are involved throughout the process.
“It was hard for some families to see the value of the program,” Christie said. “Some parents wanted their students to go straight to work. We have to help them see the value now, not just long-term. They need to see that investing a short amount of time now is worthwhile.”
Pottawattamie Promise, now in its fifth year, has been transformational for Breana and her family. Her mom decided to enroll at Iowa Western Community College, too. And her younger brothers, ages 12 and 14, now see college as an expectation, not an option. They recently watched Breana walk across the stage to receive her college degree at Iowa Western’s commencement ceremony. This fall, Breana will transfer to Buena Vista University where she plans to study criminal justice and criminology.
Breana credits Pottawattamie Promise for helping her achieve her dreams and for making the transition to a four-year university easier.
“Because of Pottawattamie Promise, I was able to focus on my studies and build a good network to help me when I struggled,” Breana said. “This program is a good thing. It not only benefits students, it benefits the community, too. It is a good investment to get people on a right track so they become contributing members of society.”