Karen Emmer, Cochise College’s Director of Financial Aid, chats with a student. (Photos by Rick Whipple)
Karen Emmer remembers each of those students who accepted her business card. The ones who assumed no one would notice if they made good grades or succeeded in life.
Emmer, Cochise College’s Director of Financial Aid, made sure those students knew that someone was paying attention.
“At one school, I worked with students who were in foster care, and one of them said ‘Why go on to a college or university? I don’t have anyone to show my grades to,’” Emmer said. “I’d hand them my card and say, ‘I will care.’”
Students receive help from Cochise College’s Financial Aid Department on the Sierra Vista Campus.
That’s the idea behind Cochise College’s new Mentoring for Success program, designed to offer guidance and support for first-generation, first-year students who, statistically, are most at risk of defaulting on student loans or dropping out of school. The program, supported by a grant from USA Funds, is set to roll out this summer.
“There’s been a lot of research done that shows if a student can meet with a caring person outside the classroom, the chances of them being successful go way up,” Emmer said. “That’s what this is all about.”
In the program’s early stages, first-year students are mentored by college and community leaders to help them navigate the admissions and enrollment processes, academic programs and advising, student life and community service activities, and career or college transfer pathways. In their second year, those students become peer mentors to incoming first-year students.
In addition to mentors working one-on-one with students, the program will also provide workshops and activities each month that cover topics like financial literacy, degree completion and accessing the right resources to be successful in college.
“Part of the program is students being involved in getting the word out about financial literacy,” Emmer said. “At some schools, students have done something on YouTube or set up workshops, so we’ll see what our students want to do to show how to be more healthy in that area, to not only decrease our default rate, but also help students not get into debt they might later get in trouble with.”
Federal student loans are provided by the U.S. Department of Education and designed to help students pay for school expenses, such as tuition, books and living. Loans are typically awarded through each college’s financial aid office as part of a total financial aid package to include grants and scholarships, but loans must be paid back after a student leaves school.
According to data compiled for 2007-08 by the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study and listed on finaid.org, 37.2 percent of students at two-year public colleges had accumulated student loan debt at graduation. Emmer said the Mentoring for Success program will build on the debt management plan put into place by Cochise College three years ago and help realize its five goals: improve student understanding of debt responsibilities; provide support to at-risk students; increase the number of students who receive non-loan financing; decrease Cochise’s default rate; and increase student retention from the first to second year.
“USA Funds provides grants to schools with low-income, high-risk students, and they’ve done a lot for us,” Emmer said. “I’m very grateful for that.”
In addition to the Mentoring for Success grant, which will provide funds for a part-time program coordinator, USA Funds has provided money to purchase Life Skills software used in financial aid orientation, as well as other software and resources to help the college improve its overall default rate.
Emmer knows that improvement begins with each individual student.
“Many students in our community have parents that haven’t gone to college or only went for a couple of years,” she said. “This way, they’ll have activities once a month, someone meeting with them one-on-one — someone who’s on their side.”