DALLAS (AP) - Daisy Donjuan's family never saw the value in college. After graduating from high school, she did what was expected of her - dropped education, worked and pitched in at home.
When she enrolled in Dallas College after a five-year break in school, she had to navigate a dizzying array of options and decisions as she sought a career outside of retail management.
With the help of a success coach, Donjuan created a plan to graduate through the college's paralegal program. She avoided taking classes that didn't advance her goals and stayed on top of coursework.
"It felt good, the fact that someone is actually checking up on you and that they're keeping up with you," Donjuan, 24, said. "They actually care about us succeeding."
Amid declines in enrollment in community colleges nationally and low completion rates, Dallas College invested nearly three years ago in hiring counselors who take a more hands-on approach to advising. The program pairs students with success coaches to navigate any challenges that stand in the way of their graduation.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story is part of Saving the College Dream, a series by the Education Reporting Collaborative involving AL.com, The Associated Press, The Christian Science Monitor, The Dallas Morning News, The Hechinger Report, The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina, and The Seattle Times, with support from the Solutions Journalism Network.
Supporting students - particularly those who come from nontraditional paths - is key as difficult circumstances, unclear pathways to a career and uncertainty about the value of a college degree can derail their education, experts say.
Without purposeful guidance on choosing the right classes or taking advantage of available resources, students can easily get lost and end up "making decisions that don't get them to a degree," said Josh Wyner, who leads higher education programs at The Aspen Institute.
About half of Dallas College's students are first-generation; a little more than 20% are parents; and about 22% are adult learners who are at least 25 with a full-time job, according to self-reported responses and data from a fall 2022 survey.
Donjuan's father, a car salesman, often boasted that he was able to create a business without a high school diploma or degree. Following his lead, she began working at a retail store but quickly ran out of room for growth after reaching a management position.
Mulling over the sacrifices her father made when he upended his life in Mexico in pursuit of a better life, Donjuan saw this as wasted potential.
"I felt lost," she said. "I wanted to break that cycle. We can do better than this ... we came for a reason."
Such details about a student's life usually aren't immediately available to success coaches. That's why it's key to ask probing questions that "dig a little deeper" to find the underlying challenges interfering in students' education, said Garry Johnson, a success coach at Dallas College's Richland Campus.
If a student is missing classes due to transportation issues, Johnson can point those who take six credits or more to a free bus pass. Experiencing food insecurity? Here's the campus' food pantry. Need last-minute child care? These are the four system campuses that offer flexible assistance.
"No student should be hungry, homeless or hopeless," Johnson said. "Our job ... is to address the whole student, not just mere academics."
Nationally, the number of students at community colleges has fallen 37% since 2010, or by nearly 2.6 million, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
Their student-to-advisor ratio at community colleges is usually quite high and labor costs are among the biggest barriers for such institutions, said Nikki Edgecombe, a senior research scholar at the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University.
"The underlying hope is that these navigators and these coaches help students manage to navigate the inevitable bumps that will come up and be able to persist in their academic studies," Edgecombe said.
Trustees approved $10 million for the success coaches at Dallas College, nearly doubling the school's advising capacity. More than 64,500 students are enrolled at Dallas College, and the system employs nearly 240 success coaches across its seven campuses.
Students are assigned to one coach, allowing them to develop more meaningful relationships with someone who can help them "navigate the Dallas College maze," said Jermain Pipkins, dean of success coaching at the school.
Building rapport with students is key, said Lisa Frost, a success coach. After Frost coached a student on how to ask her instructor about grades and opportunities to earn extra credit, the student soon opened up about how she had never been able to speak her own mind with her family.
"This simple skill alone helped this student overcome a barrier of being shy to ask what she wanted without holding back," Frost said.
Lawmakers in Texas have called for factoring student success into how much state money goes to each community college. Dallas College leaders say they're ahead because of their emphasis on keeping students on track.
Kianna Vaughn, 28, didn't immediately go to college after graduating from high school in 2013 because of the cost. Although she was accepted by Texas Southern University, she didn't qualify for financial aid.
A well-paying job cushioned Vaughn's worries for some years, but she noticed younger people were often filling positions above her own. Despite her years of experience, the absence of a degree was holding her back.
After enrolling at Dallas College last year, Vaughn met with a success coach who helped her lay out a plan that allowed her to juggle school and a full-time job. Now, Vaughn is set to transfer to Jarvis Christian University, a historically Black institution, starting next year to pursue a bachelor's degree.
"I was stagnant for a very long time," she said. "If you want more you have to go for it, it's not as easy as being comfortable where you are. But it's worth it."
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