For the first time in its 13-year history, Achieve Hartford will serve students from five Greater Hartford communities in addition to Hartford. Its two peer mentoring programs designed to help graduating high school seniors start and persist in community college have shown promising results, so Achieve Hartford and its partners at Capital and Manchester Community Colleges decided to expand the programs to help more students.

“As a first-generation student, I wish I had had someone helping me navigate this stuff,” says Sara M. Vincent, Ed.D., director, Strategic Enrollment Management, Manchester Community College. “My mom had no clue how to help me.”

The students are more likely to ask a peer a question than they are to ask a college staff member, she adds. “The personal connection that the mentors provide is crucial.”

Achieve Hartford, as part of its ALL IN! Coalition for College and Career Readiness action teams’ work, started its Summer Transition and Campus Persistence programs as pilot programs a few years ago. Since then, they’ve been modified and expanded to help every HPS grad heading to CCC and MCC.

“While we now run these programs in coordination with our community college partners, I’m thrilled the systemic-change work of two ALL IN! Coalition action teams proved successful and are being brought to scale,” says Paul Diego Holzer, executive director, Achieve Hartford.

The majority of first-generation Hartford students attend CCC and MCC, so Achieve Hartford partnered with those two schools to serve their students from Hartford. College staff recommend students who work on campus as potential peer mentors, so the program drew from a pool of students who know their way around campus structure and have a proven track record.

“We’re doing something that seems to be working and we kind of hit our ceiling for Hartford for this programming,” says Chris Marcelli, director of programs, Achieve Hartford. Staff from the community colleges and Achieve Hartford discussed ways to expand and mutually decided to start serving students from East Hartford, Bloomfield, Windsor, Manchester and Vernon. A large percentage of students from those towns attend CCC and MCC, Vincent says. In addition, adds Marcelli, students from these districts could use the added support: the state Department of Education lists these school districts as Alliance Districts, placing them among the state’s lower-performing districts.

National research shows first-generation, low-income students were nearly four times more likely (26% versus 7%) to leave higher education after the first year than non-first-generation students. Nationally, only 24% of first-generation students earn an associate degree or certificate within six years.

“We are trying to increase the retention rate,” Marcelli says. A Stanford University researcher found students who took part in mentoring and coaching services were 10-15% more likely to advance to another year of college.

In the fall of 2020, peer mentors reached out to 128 first-semester students at MCC or CCC from Hartford. In a normal year, when there isn’t a pandemic, these colleges would typically retain about 65%, or 83 students. Out of the 128 we attempted to mentor, 70%, or 90 students, persisted from the fall to spring semester, Marcelli says.

“I’m happy about that. You always want to be able to do the most good with the resources you have,” he says. “Being able to serve students from other towns to expand those resources is really good news for us.”

Plans call for serving 750 students from six communities through the summer and, in the fall, about 360 to 400 students, depending upon how many peer mentors Marcelli is able to hire.

Vincent says she and her colleagues are grateful for the partnership.

“My main focus is to get students enrolled,” she says. “Our admissions office is very, very small. I only have two full-time admissions staff [and 5,000 students.] We wouldn’t be able to do this level of support without Achieve Hartford.”