To tackle life's challenges, low-income students deserve comprehensive support systems grounded in evidence.


As a trained social worker, when I reflect on the failure of American education to prepare young people to build strong futures, I think of Yolanda. I will never forget a day back when I was serving at Catholic Charities Fort Worth (CCFW). I was spending the morning in the Hope Center, a place at CCFW designed to help triage the complex challenges of people struggling in poverty, assist them with the resources they need, and ultimately, to accompany them on a journey out of poverty—usually involving increasing their education or earning a credential. In walked Yolanda, with whom I was quickly assigned to work. We sat down together, and Yolanda politely answered my few initial questions. Two minutes in, though, she stopped answering. She started shaking her head instead, tears streaming down her face, shoulders hunched. Finally, she whispered, “I just can’t.”

She pushed a stack of envelopes across the table and asked me to open them for her. As we opened and read through each piece of mail together, I too became overwhelmed. First was a utility bill that had ballooned to more than a thousand dollars of past-due charges and came with a threat that her electricity was about to be shut off. Next was an eviction notice giving her and her son 30 days to vacate their apartment. Then, a notice about the restraining order against her ex-boyfriend. Last, a letter notifying her that her child support account was in arrears.

The image of Yolanda and her stack of envelopes will forever stay with me as a tragic portrait of the toxic stress of poverty, a force so powerful it can make a person nearly inarticulate, palpably tense, and virtually myopic. It stifles one’s ability to see the steps necessary to build a decent life—much less to take them.

“For students trapped in poverty, even the most well-designed and generous higher education institutions are stymied by complex factors outside the classroom.”

Most of us learn in school about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. We understand that it is difficult to feel safe or have a sense of belonging, esteem, and self-actualization if our most basic human needs such as food and shelter are unmet. The solution Yolanda needed that day was similar—first focused on immediate needs and then oriented toward a decent life she could build.

The same is true of our higher education system. For students trapped in poverty, even the most well-designed and generous higher education institutions are stymied by complex factors outside the classroom. The solution, as we are finding again and again in research being conducted across the country, must include a comprehensive approach to promoting the wellbeing of low-income students. A comprehensive approach means meeting a student where they are, learning about their future goals, sequencing services with them, and taking steps forward week after week to achieve them. It requires a framework for working with students and for building support systems that does not address education in a silo, but recognizes outside forces that might jeopardize academic success. Designing that approach will require research into the root problems that low-income students face and a reassessment of the metrics that matter.

Making Sense of the Completion Crisis

A college degree is sadly one of but a few ways to gain economic security and break poverty’s cycle in today’s economy. Because community colleges are more affordable, closer to home, and generally more accessible than four-year institutions, they give more people the opportunity to tap into the economic benefits of higher education—especially those trapped in poverty. A community college degree signals career and technical experience to potential employers and can open a path to four-year colleges, where students can pursue a bachelor’s degree.

But America’s community colleges face an ongoing completion crisis. Less than 40% of community college students graduate within six years. Completion varies considerably by income. Most students (54%) from households in the top income quartile complete a degree, while 32% in the third quartile, 21% in the second quartile, and only 9% in the lowest quartile do. Dropping out marks a tragic setback for students, who not only incur debt, but also forego the economic gains that come with a degree. They are worse off than when they started.

Notre Dame’s Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities (LEO) helps service providers apply scientific evaluation methods to better understand and unleash effective social service innovations. It is grounded in a belief that research serves people, not the other way around.   Soon after it was founded in 2012, LEO launched one of its first research projects at CCFW—the organization where I first met Yolanda. CCFW was concerned about students in poverty overcoming barriers to college completion. LEO shared some national statistics that mirrored what CCFW was seeing in Fort Worth: only 5% of students in two-year colleges graduated on time with a two-year degree; 16% of students pursuing a certificate program graduated on time; and 38% of recent high school graduates who enrolled in a two-year college completed a degree within six years.

“Dropping out marks a tragic setback for students, who not only incur debt, but also forego the economic gains that come with a degree. They are worse off than when they started.”

CCFW hypothesized that low-income students faced both concrete, non-academic barriers in their lives, like childcare, housing, and transportation, as well as more intrinsic barriers like a lack of belief in oneself, an absence of hope, and the culture of poverty. The experience of CCFW suggested that money wasn’t the solution; instead, the college completion crisis demanded a comprehensive approach. This took the form of Stay the Course, a program involving intensive case management to help students navigate the complexities of life and to help them reinstate hope and belief in themselves.

But the hypothesis underlying Stay the Course needed testing. Collaboration with LEO enabled CCFW to begin a rigorous evaluation and launch a randomized controlled trial—the gold-standard study design for impact evaluation. The trial generated causal evidence and isolated the effects of Stay the Course on outcomes for our local students.

The research results corroborated CCFW’s hypothesis: Low-income community college students who received intensive case management—the comprehensive solution—outperformed their peer groups. Students who received Stay the Course case management and financial assistance were 25 percentage points more likely to persist in school through their sixth semester and 16 percentage points more likely to earn an associate’s degree. Women, in particular, benefited from case management. They were 2.7 times (36 percentage points) more likely to persist in college and 32 percentage points more likely to earn an associate’s degree. Though the program cost $5,640 per student, the earnings gains of graduates offset the program cost after about four years in the workforce.

CCFW took the findings to the Fort Worth community and invested mightily to expand Stay the Course from a few hundred students to a few thousand each year. More students today benefit from comprehensive case management and Stay the Course because of the research led by CCFW and LEO.

What CCFW and LEO observed in the Fort Worth community about barriers to academic success and ultimately learned through impact evaluation has since been backed by a decade of evidence. Researchers come to understand that there are four main reasons why students don’t graduate: a shaky academical foundation, unaffordable tuition costs, college institutional barriers (e.g., understanding course and graduation requirements), and personal crises.

Only recently have researchers come to recognize the role that personal crises play in knocking students off course, and evidence from the past decade is beginning to shine a light on how to address this factor. For example, Comprehensive Approaches to Increasing Student Completion in Higher Education, a landmark survey of student success programs over the last decade, evaluated programs with randomized controlled trial-generated data. Comparing eight programs designed to help students persist in college, graduate, and succeed in the workplace, the report identified the main thread that runs through them all: support services that can be described as “comprehensive.”

For example, single mothers are at greater risk of dropping out of school if their hours are cut at work. Single women who fled domestic violence before enrolling in school are more likely to believe claims that they are “worthless” and dropout of school after receiving an “F” on an exam. Young men from low-income families are more likely to quit school when they need to work more hours to support their families. Comprehensive support means ensuring that these students are supported not only in their academic pursuits, but in their myriad other needs, such as employment assistance, strategic financial assistance, or cognitive behavioral therapy.

For low-income students navigating higher education, there are no silver bullets. What works are long-term, in-depth, comprehensive solutions designed to address the wide range of circumstances a student might face—that is, case management and coaching to help students overcome life’s many obstacles.

Investing in What Works

An army of social entrepreneurs, counselors, case managers, and so many others are beginning to turn the tide and improve student outcomes. But despite their successes, we still know too little about what works. There are many comprehensive approaches to case management—not all of them equally effective or universally applicable. Practitioners need more evidence, and policymakers can help.

In 2016, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Senator Patty Murray formed the bipartisan Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking, in response to a white paper by LEO co-founder Jim Sullivan calling for more causal evidence on programs and policies aimed at alleviating poverty. Several of the Commission’s recommendations were passed into law through the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act a couple of years later. The new law sought to promote research on the impact of social programs, open access to scientific evidence, and improve the capacity of government agencies and social service providers. It established dedicated personnel within top federal agencies to increase data access while protecting the privacy of individual Americans.

“America may soon reach a tipping point at which it begins investing in what has been proven to work our normal course of business.”

Tremendous progress has been made in evidence-building ever since. Policy labs such as Notre Dame’s LEO, MIT’s JPAL North America, and University of Chicago’s Urban Labs have come on the scene, leveraging the research muscle of renowned academic institutions to measure and hone impact. National groups like Results for America have built their missions around advocating for evidence-informed policy. Philanthropic organizations like Arnold Ventures have championed investing in programs backed by evidence of their effectiveness. America may soon reach a tipping point at which it begins investing in what has been proven to work our normal course of business.

Even so, in the current higher education crisis, it may be tempting to bypass the long-term evidence-building process in search of a quick fix. But to really help the people we claim to be so dedicated to supporting, policymakers and practitioners alike must commit to building and using evidence. A few reforms and mindset changes can ensure that whatever commitments they do make ultimately pay off.

First, policymakers must stop confusing the means with the ends. Stable housing, affordable food, and a valuable credential are worthwhile, but they are means to a much broader end of productive contribution to and membership in society. Research should measure, and policymakers should hold programs accountable to, a bigger picture of productive life outcomes. They should prioritize longer-term metrics like employment, job retention, and earnings; study and understand how to achieve them; and then scale up the tactics that are proven to work.

The narrative must shift from “free college for all” and towards impact. Life’s struggles don’t go away with a scholarship, and free college is meaningless if it doesn’t yield improved employment and earnings—much less if students fail to graduate. Likewise, effective evaluations should compare the impact of comprehensive support on college students to the impact of comparable support and resources provided to young Americans on noncollege pathways. Even a successful program like Stay the Course still sees most students fail to complete a degree, which suggests that many would benefit from other well-supported routes to skill development and stable employment.

Second, policymakers must focus efforts on yielding rigorous evidence with concrete implications for education and workforce development programs. Not all evidence is created equal. Causal evidence produced by randomized controlled trials and quasi-experimental studies are the most helpful. They are uniquely designed to measure the outcomes attributable to the program in question.

To encourage the use of evidence-based programs, federal policymakers should prioritize programs that have a rigorous evidence base and they should apply rigorous evaluations to current funded programs. This approach will help us make the biggest strides toward improving outcomes for low-income students. Policymakers should also hold agencies accountable to this standard.

Lastly, policymakers should centralize existing and future data on education, workforce development, and anti-poverty programs. Surveys, federal program administration, and non-governmental data sources have yielded rich data sets for researchers to mine, but the federal government’s decentralized data infrastructure and statistical system limits the ability to generate the timely information needed for evidence-based policymaking. Establishing a National Data Service Center, as recommended by the bipartisan 2017 Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking, could centralize the nation’s data and information infrastructure.


If I had told Yolanda that I was going to sign her up for a training program to become a forklift operator, I am sure she would have left our visit and never come back. Science shows us that the toxic stress of poverty keeps people locked in the here and now, unable to look toward the future. This isn’t laziness; it’s not a poor work ethic; it’s not apathy or an inability to dream. There are physiological reasons why sometimes the best someone in poverty can do is simply whisper, “I just can’t.”

If we want low-income Americans to improve their lives and navigate higher education successfully, we must meet them where they are with a comprehensive support system that’s proven to work.

Heather Reynolds
Heather Reynolds is managing director of the Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities at the University of Notre Dame.
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