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A study released Thursday shows an Arkansas education program that helps low-income students obtain two-year degrees has shown exemplary success.

The Career Pathways Initiative, which is administered through the state's higher education department using federal dollars, has helped more than 30,000 low-income Arkansans attain associate degrees and technical certifications since the program's inception in 2006, according to the College Count$ study.

To qualify for the program, students must be custodial parents eligible for public assistance and have incomes at or below 250 percent of the federal poverty level. The program moves students through 25 community and technical colleges every year, mixing low-income participants in classrooms alongside a community college's general student body.

According to the study, Career Pathways students are graduating at a higher rate than regular community college students. Fifty-two percent of these low-income students have obtained at least one higher education certificate or degree, compared with 24 percent of the rest of the student body.

Katherine Boswell, a national education policy consultant who led the College Count$ study, said the state's Career Pathways program is leaps and bounds ahead of similar programs across the nation. Arkansas students who were enrolled in the program had a 23 percent higher completion rate than the completion rate at all two-year public colleges nationwide, according to 2013 data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

"I've been working with community college policy for 30 years. I have never seen these kinds of extraordinary results in a state," she said at a Thursday morning event, where she announced the study's results. "You're doing something right, and I hope that you'll continue to invest in it and support these programs, because they are going to make a difference to the future of your state."

The College Count$ study was conducted by the nonprofit Arkansas Community Colleges in partnership with the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, Ford Foundation, and Annie E. Casey Foundation. What the rigorous evaluation project ultimately seeks to gauge is how the Career Pathways program is reducing generational poverty.

Low-income 2011 graduates earned an average of $3,100 more in the 12 months after graduation than they would have otherwise, the report notes. State data show that an average two-year degree holder earns an income $15,000 greater than a high school diploma holder five years after graduation.

"They're no longer tax consumers, they're tax producers. This is the kind of thing we've spent 51 years trying to find the key to," said Bill Stovall, executive director of Arkansas Community Colleges.

When a family's income increases, its likelihood of escaping cyclical poverty increases, said Marla Strecker, senior associate director for research and technology with the Arkansas Department of Higher Education. A child's school attendance goes up as a family's income increases, along with the child's potential for higher education, she said.

"You take penicillin, you get cured; you get education, it cures the poverty cycle," Strecker said.

"If you can see that it breaks a generational cycle, what better place to put federal funds, because we've been throwing those out there for years," she said.

Brett Powell, director of the Arkansas Department of Higher Education, noted how the federal Pell Grant Program spent $32 billion in 2015 providing need-based grants to low-income undergraduate students. But those grants have done little to expand the educational obtainment opportunities available to low-income Americans, he said.

Since 1972, when the first Pell Grant was awarded, Americans in the lowest quartile of family incomes have seen educational obtainment rates increase by 3 percent, Powell said. Those rates almost doubled for the top quartile of earners in the U.S. in that same period.

Unlike awarding paid tuition to low-income undergraduate students, the key to Career Pathways' success is its hands-on approach, education officials said. The program covers students' incidental costs -- such as textbooks, transportation and child care -- and focuses heavily on student mentoring, counseling and tutoring.

"The support that Career Pathways Initiative provides takes care of those things -- the personal challenges of being a student" and other financial burdens related to going to school, Powell said.

The Higher Education Department is spending an average of $1,500 a year in federal funds for each student enrolled in the Career Pathways Initiative. The money is paid out to the community colleges participating in the program.

The College Count$ study is currently seeking funding for the next phase of research, which in part aims to measure economic benefits to the state generated by the initiative through expanded employment, collecting more taxes on larger incomes and a reduced drain on public assistance resources.

"We want to find a way to move people up the ladder," state Sen. Jane English, R-North Little Rock, said Thursday. "I'm tired of people thinking we're just a poor, dumb state. We're not. We do some really great things here. But it takes some people with some vision and some people with the ability to stick with it."

Metro on 04/01/2016

Print Headline: College program called a success

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