The Arkansas Career Pathways Initiative (CPI) is being hailed as a success by College Count$, an external evaluator that partnered with Metis Associates and the Arkansas Research Center for the purposes of this study.
In the new study, College Count$ found that 52 percent of the 27,517 CPI participants enrolled in the program between 2006 and 2013 obtained a certificate or degree. That rate is more than double the completion rate of non-CPI two-year college students enrolled in school during the same timeframe.
“I’ve been doing this work for a long time, and I have to say that it is very heartening to see some success that far exceeds anyone’s expectations,” Katherine Boswell, a national education policy consultant who led the College Count$ study, told Diverse.
What makes the CPI all the more remarkable is that it targets students who are among Arkansas’ most economically disadvantaged. To qualify for the program, participants must be custodial parents who rely on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) dollars.
The overwhelming majority—90 percent—of CPI program participants are women, and their average age is 31.
Students without a degree or their GED start returning to college to brush up their qualifications once they realize it is practically impossible to get by on minimum wage without turning to public assistance or family support, said Karon Rosa, program director at the Arkansas Department of Higher Education.
“The arithmetic of life doesn’t work if you’re 31 and you’re making minimum wage,” Rosa said. You can’t afford rent, transportation, child care.” Most jobs require a degree or credential nowadays. The Arkansas minimum wage is $8.50 per hour.
According to College Count$, CPI has proved to be a sound financial investment for the state and program participants. CPI participants who enrolled in the program after 2011 earned $3,100 more each year than their TANF recipient counterparts who did not take part in CPI, the study found. For CPI graduates in the allied health and education sector, who make up the majority of CPI graduates, the wage increase is even higher.
The implications for Arkansas are enormous, Boswell said. “Lives are changing,” she said. “This is so good for Arkansas, and it’s a model for other states.” She added that, because the program focuses on single parents with children, it could have an ameliorating effect on intergenerational poverty in Arkansas.
CPI, which started in 2005, provides caseworkers for CPI program participants on site at each of the state’s 22 community colleges and three technical centers affiliated with universities. Caseworkers assist students with their academic programs and help them obtain necessary services, such as transportation vouchers, child care, tutoring, mentoring, case management, and career coaching.
Per student, the program costs an average of $1,500 a year. The program splits its funding evenly between caseworker salaries and supplemental funds for CPI participants, Rosa said.
Ellen Sullivan, a project coordinator at the nonprofit Arkansas Community Colleges, said that costs per student are low because program caseworkers ensure that students make the most of state or federal assistance dollars already available to them. The number is also a true average, she said, since not all program participants had the same level of financial need. Some might need only a few hundred additional dollars, while others needed more in the thousands.
Sullivan worked as a caseworker at Pulaski Technical College for five years. “The program has morphed since I started working,” she said. When she was first hired, she worked as an academic counselor, but, within a few years, roles merged to create what Sullivan called a highly effective model where caseworkers were essentially a “one-stop shop” for program participants, assisting them with financial aid forms, obtaining child care, and advocating for them with college instructors.
“They were some of the most resourceful people I had ever met,” Sullivan said of the CPI program participants she worked with over the years. “They raised their families with very little support, and most of my students were wonderful parents. They sacrificed for their children and did what they had to do so their kids could have the best possible life.”
Boswell said that they hoped to show state legislators and the federal government that TANF dollars are being effectively used with the CPI program. “If we can show that this has such a greater return on investment, that maybe the feds will change their policies, so we can help more families break out of that poverty cycle,” she said.
According to Rosa, the funds are managed in such a way that they go directly toward helping CPI participants get a degree. The monies go directly to child care programs, transportation vouchers, and the like.
That kind of targeted assistance has proved to be effective, Rosa said. “If throwing money at the problem helped, Pell Grants would have worked,” she added.
One area of concern for the program is that funding is dependent on federal dollars and state legislative priorities, Rosa told Diverse. When the program started under Governor Mike Huckabee in 2005, it was funded to about $13 million. Since then, it has dropped to $7.1 million due to reductions in available TANF program dollars.
Other programs for low-income families and individuals in Arkansas have experienced even more of a setback, when an annual $6.2 million federal supplement to the TANF grant was cut in 2011. The Arkansas Alliance of Boys and Girls Clubs, for instance, stopped receiving an annual $2 million.
The College Count$ study was carried out by Arkansas Community Colleges in partnership with the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, Ford Foundation, and Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Staff writer Catherine Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.