Newswise — Community colleges provide a path out of poverty for many low-income students. However, far too many never graduate. Nationally, fewer than 40 percent of community college students obtain a degree within six years. New research from the University of Notre Dame shows that a comprehensive case management program that also addresses day-to-day obstacles can effectively tackle this completion crisis.

Researchers from Notre Dame’s Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities (LEO) and the University of Maryland partnered with Catholic Charities Fort Worth to evaluate Stay the Course, a program that pairs undergraduates with trained social workers who can help them navigate important non-academic hurdles — including child care and transportation — that often lead students to drop out. Students in the program also have access to limited emergency financial assistance that can be used for unexpected expenses that might prevent them from persisting in school.

Between 2013 and 2016, the researchers conducted a randomized controlled trial evaluation of Stay the Course at Tarrant County College, which is a Fort Worth, Texas, community college with approximately 50,000 students. Eligible students were randomly assigned to three groups. The first had full access to comprehensive case management and emergency financial assistance, the second was offered only emergency financial assistance, and the third was a control group.

The researchers tracked the students’ academic records for three years after enrollment in the program. In a new working paper circulated by the National Bureau of Economic Research, they show that the students who participated in the full Stay the Course program were significantly more likely to stay enrolled and to graduate within six semesters. The researchers noted no difference between the control group and the group receiving only emergency financial assistance. A simple cost-benefit analysis shows that the earnings boost that results from obtaining an associate’s degree is more than sufficient to cover the cost of the Stay the Course program.

Co-author James X. Sullivan, Rev. Thomas J. McDonagh, C.S.C., Associate Professor of Economics and co-founder of LEO, was surprised to see that the program was especially effective for females — the results show that for women who participated in the program, Stay the Course increased persistence in college by 36 percentage points, and degree completion by 32 percentage points.

“It is interesting that giving financial support alone is not enough,” Sullivan said. “Our study indicates that the involvement of a coach and mentor who understands the individual needs of each student is critical to improving outcomes for this vulnerable population.”

LEO is partnering with Catholic Charities Fort Worth to study the impact of Stay the Course as it gets replicated in other U.S. cities.

“We are currently facing a completion crisis in the U.S. There is a real need for cost-effective interventions,” Sullivan said. “Stay the Course is an example that has been shown to move the needle.”

Co-authors on the NBER paper include Sullivan; William N. Evans, Keough-Hesburgh Professor of Economics and co-founder of LEO; Brendan C. Perry, senior research associate at LEO; and Melissa S. Kearney, professor of economics at the University of Maryland. The paper is available online at