Amy Thibodeau, assistant to the instructor for the Registered Medical Assisting Program at Asnuntuck Community College, works with students in the classroom. Photo courtesy of Asnuntuck Community College.

By Megan Burke
Director of Community Impact Grantmaking,
Hartford Foundation for Public Giving

Many community college students start out with the odds against them. They tend to be older, live in lower-income communities and have little family wealth to support them. Nationwide, students of color are disproportionately represented among community college students, making up 55 percent overall. They also include a high percentage of first-generation students, English Language Learners, and undocumented students. Demographics at community colleges in Greater Hartford show an even greater proportion of low-income, students of color. At Capital Community College, among its nearly 70 percent Black and Latinx student body, the majority of degree-seeking students are first generation students. At Manchester Community College, more than half of its students are students of color with family incomes of less than $50,000 per year.

Amy Thibodeau, assistant to the instructor for the Registered Medical Assisting Program at Asnuntuck Community College, works with students in the classroom. Photo courtesy of Asnuntuck Community College.

The challenges these students face in their day-to-day lives impact their ability to persist in their studies. Just 36 percent of students enrolled in two-year public institutions across the country complete a credential. The rate is even lower for students of color, with just 23 percent of Black students earning a degree compared to 49 percent of white students. Many low-income, first-generation college students struggle with housing instability and food insecurity and a lack of mentoring or coaching. These challenges make meeting the academic requirements feel almost insurmountable. Some students drop out due to the loss of employment or housing; others leave after feeling disconnected from the college experience.

Why does it matter? Research abounds that postsecondary degrees lead to a higher lifetime income for all graduates. Community colleges are significantly more affordable than four-year programs and similarly offer their graduates a higher likelihood of stable employment with substantially higher wages as compared with non-completers. Several studies (1, 2, 3) have found that students with an associate degree are much more likely to earn at least a “living wage” ($30,000 per year or more) compared to their neighbors without postsecondary training or education. Students with an associate degree may also be on the path to a bachelor’s degree later in life. In the quest for greater economic mobility for low-income Greater Hartford residents of color, access to and completion of an affordable education is key.

Students taking a break outside of Asnuntuck’s Advanced Manufacturing Technology Center. Photo courtesy of Asnuntuck Community College.

With these facts and figures in mind, the Hartford Foundation’s urgency to act was heightened last summer, as we began to hear from our partners – community colleges and other programs working with these students. Many of the longstanding challenges were dramatically exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic that disproportionately impacted the health and economic well-being of low-income families.

Hartford Promise, the scholarship program for Hartford public high school graduates, summarized the feedback they received from Promise scholars: “The hurdles they are coping with are devastating – food and housing insecurity, unsafe family circumstances, loss of work study and part-time job income, loss of family income and the need to support families, no safe or quiet place to continue their studies, lack of or inadequate computers and technology, and more. Our Scholars also experienced a high level of COVID cases and multiple Scholars lost family members.”

Current and prospective Capital Community College students gathered at Dunkin Donuts Stadium in August 2020 to register for the fall semester and speak with admission, financial aid and academic counselors. Photo courtesy of Capital Community College.

The Hartford Foundation’s relationships with our community partners gave us access to the information we needed to respond quickly. In August, we launched a call for proposals and by the Fall, we had awarded $235,000 for direct supports to students, including laptops, Wi-Fi hot spots, books and learning materials, micro-grants for emergency expenses, student stipends and stipends to peer mentors or coaches. These grants were an immediate response to an urgent need—helping approximately 350 low-income students of color and another 200 Second Chance Pell students—- to persist through the 2020-2021 academic year.

According to some local students, the support is greatly appreciated:

“Considering my family and I are ineligible for stimulus checks and we lost our employment due to Covid-19, this financial support allows us to meet our dire and essential needs. The support you have provided does not go unnoticed and has tremendously helped me get one step closer to graduating university and achieving my life goal of becoming an attorney who provides financially attainable legal services for the Hartford community.”

Miah LaPierre-Dreger, dean of academic and student affairs at Capital Community College, speaks with a student at a recruitment event in August 2020. Photo courtesy of Capital Community College.

“As the weeks go by in break, I kept thinking to myself how am I going to pay for my needs on campus and my debt which increased. Hartford Promise sent me an email with a financial need survey, so I filled it out. Then in a week, they email me saying money is coming to my address. When I opened it, I was crying in joy and relief. I was relieved from my financial burdens.”

This is just a first step. We recognize this action won’t address systemic barriers to college access and completion for those students of color who face the greatest challenges. As the Hartford Foundation continues on its journey to increase equitable economic mobility, ensuring access to education that leads to family sustaining wages is one of our top priorities.