Gateway's new president plots an easier path to graduation

FLORENCE, Ky. -- Many students at Gateway Community & Technical College face more than their share of hurdles.

Low-wage jobs, trouble finding day care for children and affordable health care all pose challenges for students before they even crack open a book.

Those outside forces contribute to just 30 percent of students graduating on time or even close to it.

But Gateway President Fernando Figueroa has a plan to boost those odds in students' favor with an aggressive plan for "wraparound" services. He and his team hope the extra help can make the difference between overcoming or succumbing to challenges outside the classroom.

Figueroa plans to automatically screen new students to find all the extra help they are eligible to receive and to press them to take advantage of it.

He's synthesizing what's working in community college systems in Dallas, where he was vice chancellor, New York and Miami Dade College.

"I learned about the research that 70 percent of what keeps students out of the classroom has nothing to do with the classroom," he said.

Gateway President Fernando Figueroa

Gateway currently offers an array of services to students, but those who don't seek the help may not be aware of everything that is available.

The new system will identify all the services that each student can access, and counselors will contact every student to make sure they're aware. 

Help outside the classroom can be critical to completion.

"Recently we helped a student who was the victim of a house fire. She lost everything," Ingrid Washington, Gateway vice president for student development, said. "Through the benefits of our student emergency fund, supported by Gateway’s Foundation, we were able to provide emergency supplies and clothing for her family that enabled her to remain in school."

Like most two-year colleges, Gateway battles high dropout rates, with just 30 percent of students graduating within 1½ times the normal time for an associates degree or shorter certification program.

According to the National Center for Education statistics, 94 percent of full-time Gateway students receive some form of financial aid, including 58 percent who receive federal Pell Grants.

Nearly half -- 46 percent -- are 25 or older, and many obstacles that Gateway and community partners can help them overcome can thwart their graduation plans.

Figueroa said the problems usually fall into a few categories:

  • Tax preparation to establish eligibility for financial aid.
  • Housing problems
  • Legal issues
  • Transportation
  • Healthcare

Partners like United Way of Greater Cincinnati, Legal Aid of the Bluegrass, Medicaid and TANK bus service can help overcome most of these problems. But students don't always know about or take advantage of the help.

Figueroa wants to change that.

"We would use the existing resources," he said. "The ultimate goal is to have software developed for automatic screening and following up with students to walk through their options."

Gateway's challenge is finding the money to develop and sustain the automatic screening and extra counseling model. Figueroa said Miami Dade College has an effective program that is limited by the federal grants it employs to pay for the screening and counseling.

He's seeking input from United Way and others to find other funding that's more flexible and sustainable.

Washington hopes to clear the path for students to focus on schoolwork.

“Our students have many challenges in their lives outside the classroom. It’s important that we offer support services to help them reduce barriers that challenge them in their everyday lives,” she said.

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