Armed with federal stimulus monies, College of Marin takes decisive action to get – and keep – students in school.It’s been well documented that the Covid-19 pandemic, now in its second year, has highlighted the disparities between those with means and those without. For many college students, sudden unemployment (whether theirs or a parent’s) or reduced hours at work has meant college classes have been put on hold while more immediate needs were addressed.
“While we have provided unprecedented financial support to students with the greatest needs during the pandemic, we recognized that for many, that was not enough to keep them on their educational journeys,” says College of Marin Superintendent/President David Wain Coon, Ed.D.
The college decided to tackle the issue with some bold action to ensure that finances would not be a barrier to education, introducing the Clear Path program late last fall. The program waives tuition and mandatory fees for all students during the spring 2022 semester. That goes for fulltime, part-time, and non-credit students at both the Novato and Kentfield campuses, regardless of residency or immigration status. Parking fees have also been waived. All in all, it’s an average savings of $1,000 to $1,200 per student.
“In essence, we wanted to ‘clear the path’ for students to get back on or to stay on their journeys toward reaching their educational goals,” says Dr. Coon.
The program was made possible using the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund, a federal Covid relief program available to just about every educational institution in the country. The funds come with the stipulation that half the money has to be put toward direct student aid, while the other half could be used for institutional needs such as professional development, additional cleaning, or purchasing laptops. Using the money to offset student tuition was considered the most direct way to help students and get them back to campus.
In a separate program, the Board of Trustees also voted to eliminate all student debt incurred from March 2020 through November 2021. “For students who had to drop classes during the pandemic and leave with outstanding debt on their accounts, waiving their debt cleared the way for them to enroll for spring semester,” said Dr. Coon.
The College got the word out about these programs to current students through email and text messages. The marketing team also reached out to former students, urging them to return and complete their degree or certificate.
“When I first heard of this program, I could feel my stress start to disappear,” recalls Sarah Ghannam, a psychology student who is finishing her degree this spring and plans to transfer to a four-year institution in the fall. “I can say my friends feel the same way. I know many whose hours have been cut, or who lost their jobs altogether.”
There’s no question that relieving them prior debt, plus the removal of tuition, health, transportation, and technology fees for the semester, will allow more of them to stay in school, she says.
College of Marin serves a variety of students with varying economic needs. A significant number are first generation, “and these are the students who have felt the biggest brunt from the pandemic. Many have additional family responsibilities, more tenuous transportation and housing situations, and less stable employment,” notes Jonathan Eldridge, Ed.D., assistant superintendent/vice president of student learning and success. “It was our most vulnerable who had to drop out of school, or who had to drop courses.”
Addressing student needs and making higher education affordable has long been a College of Marin priority. The school has had a Zero Textbook Cost Program in place for several years and encourages professors to use open source materials in their class rather than requiring students to buy expensive texts. Where textbooks are still required – in some math and science classes, for example – they can be checked out of the library for the semester. The college is also planning to permanently remove any materials fees, which would primarily impact those in art and health sciences classes.
Although it’s too early to measure the overall success of the Clear Path program, Dr. Eldridge does point to recent enrollment numbers. While College of Marin saw a 6% drop in enrollment in fall 2021, this semester’s numbers have remained stable. And these stable enrollment numbers mean “we are canceling fewer classes, and we can offer more sections. Students are not left in the lurch and they can complete their program more quickly.” As the program moves along, he says, student surveys will help the school think more strategically about student needs and how they can best address them.
“We hope the Clear Path program backs up the message we’ve been sending students – that we are meeting them where they are. We’ve got them covered,” says Dr. Coon.