The federal government has awarded Berkshire Community College nearly $2 million to improve student graduation rates and expand its ability to serve low-income students.
The Strengthening Institutions Program grant from the U.S. Department of Education stretches five years. The funding will be used to restructure the college’s intake services, create first-year experience courses and hire three academic counselors to ensure students complete their degrees.
“Part of this process involves the implementation of what we call an early alert student system,” explained Michael Bullock, the vice president for Student Affairs and Enrollment Services at Berkshire Community College. “There is technology available now that was not there some years to help track students more effectively. When a student is struggling a faculty member can easily contact someone in our advising center or another support service to intervene and help.”
With a student population of roughly 2,200, more than half of which are the first-generation in their families to attend college, Berkshire Community College says a fragmented enrollment system, undefined academic pathways and limited professional development opportunities have resulted in declining retention and graduation rates. Eighty-two percent of first generation, full-time BCC students are low-income.
Bullock says jobs, family commitments and limited financial resources can all be barriers to degree completion. Since 2010, BCC’s graduation rate has dropped from 25 to 19 percent while enrollment has declined by 22 percent. Fall to fall retention rate hovers around 56 percent. BCC student trustee Gladys Garcia-Rijos says class registration and navigating financial aid can be overwhelming for students of all ages.
“Sometimes students are afraid to ask for help,” Garcia-Rijos said. “The software will allow advisers to see if a student may be having some difficulty and practically reach out to students to see how they may helped through other services on campus.”
Congressman Richard Neal was on hand to celebrate the grant, one of only 40 awarded in the country.
“We want to get everybody to the starting line,” Neal said. “Where you finish the race is not necessarily going to be determined just by circumstances that you can always manage. That’s what the community college provides – an opportunity for people to make up their minds in a pretty, through the good wishes and will of the legislature and despite what people say, a pretty good price.”
Over the next five years, Berkshire Community College is aiming to increase retention rates by nine percent, raise graduation rates by eight percent and increase the college’s course completion rates by 10 percent. Bullock says the grant is spread out over a number of years so the college can pilot programs and figure out how effective they are.
“It’s our sense that perhaps there have too many options and the options have not been well defined,” Bullock said. “So students who come to us with limited resources and experiences get lost along the way. This grant is going to help us to reverse that trend and to be much clearer in the pathways, initiatives and main focal points along the way that lead to student success.”
Springfield Technical Community College was also awarded a five-year $2 million grant for similar initiatives.