Loving Students to Success

Amarillo College, 2021 Aspen Prize Rising Star

In 2014, leaders at Amarillo College recognized that students were dropping out not because they struggled academically. Rather, they were struggling to survive—to afford housing and food and transportation, find care for their children, and get the health care and legal help they needed.

So Amarillo College reshaped itself around a core conviction: You can’t move students to a degree and a career if you don’t remove the barriers that poverty creates. In just a few years, the college has become nationally known for its robust social services division, which every year receives more than 5,000 visits—equivalent to half the student body. AC employs three full-time social workers, offers 10 free sessions of mental health counseling, and provides emergency aid that can be accessed within 24 hours, as well as a daycare center that costs only a few dollars per week.

There are other colleges that offer a range of supports like these. What sets AC apart is that every employee knows it’s their job to connect students to whatever they need. Instructors mention all the resources available to students multiple times a week; email reminders and posters around the college make it impossible to not know the many ways the college stands ready to help. When they enroll, students are asked about their needs; this, plus a predictive model assessing risk factors, yields a list of 1,000 students believed to be facing the greatest challenges. Social workers contact them at least six times each semester to ensure they are on track.

All of these efforts—coupled with an ambitious approach to rapidly scaling academic reforms—have paid off: Amarillo College’s graduation and transfer rate increased a remarkable 18 percentage points over five years.

Patty Melton, 56, is one of the many students for whom this approach has made a world of difference. She recently went back to school for the first time in nearly 40 years, after losing her job during the COVID pandemic. Just after enrolling, she found herself having a difficult time not only with algebra, but also with her rent and bills. “I really needed some money,” she said, “a week ago and not a week from now.”

Instead of spinning her wheels in remedial classes, Melton, like all AC students with developmental needs, was put in a credit-bearing math class that benefited from an additional instructor who kept assuring her she could succeed. Meanwhile, her advisor got her connected to an advance on her financial aid, which meant the difference between staying enrolled and stopping out.

After one semester in business management, Melton had a 4.0 GPA. She credits her success to the warm AC culture and array of resources. “This college is nothing like I ever would have thought college would have been like,” she said. “Every time I’ve had an issue or get stumped, there is a resource or someone available to help me.”