A team of women at the Santa Fe Community College has been working for several years to win a highly competitive grant to blunt Hispanic, Latino and low-income students' abysmal graduation rates.

The dispiriting reality: Hispanic and low-income students are not graduating as quickly—or, in many cases, at all—compared to their peers.

SFCC is one of only two institutions in New Mexico to earn the $3 million Title V Developing Hispanic-Serving Institutions Program five-year grant with the project "Minority Academic Pathways to Success."

Local project designers' work tracked several years of declining retainment numbers for Hispanic and low-income students.

The US Department of Education earmarked funding, says college grants director Ann Black, because officials "recognize that Hispanic-serving institutions, minority-serving institutions, need more resources to make Hispanic students and low-income students and other minorities successful in post-secondary education. We have a high number of students who come to us who are first-generation college [students]. The idea of going to college is really intimidating and it's challenging if you don't have that knowledge and background that your parents can often give you."

According to data provided by SFCC, in the 2017-2018 school year, the school educated 7,684 students; 69% of first-time, full-time students were Hispanic. However, only 41% of full-time Hispanic and low-income freshmen stayed in school after their first year. Over half dropped out.

Only 21% of that demographic group graduated within three years, and only 15% transferred to a four-year college or university after graduation with their associate degree. Hispanic students compose the school's majority of degree-seeking students—but they are placed into developmental classes at significantly higher rates than their non-Hispanic classmates. Developmental classes are for students who are underprepared for college coursework.

The school learned of the award in October and is starting to spend it now.

"We're hiring a student resource coordinator through this grant to assist students in hooking them up with resources at the college, as well as community resources that they need to be successful because our students come here with all kinds of challenges," Black tells SFR. "It's not academic, necessarily. Food insecurity is huge. Housing is huge. We want to be there to help the student."

Other plans for the grant are more complex, such as creating meta-majors, restructuring developmental math classes, more hands-on, data-supported help from advisers to keep students on track and professional development for faculty and staff, all part of the Guided Pathways model that SFCC wants to set up.

Meta-majors are groups of majors clustered together that have similar certificates and classes. Higher education experts say they help students start more quickly taking classes that connect directly with the degrees they're interested in.

According to the school, establishing the model as part of their project will remove "barriers" that Hispanic and low-income students face.

Boosting the school's online presence is another focus point.

"The online courses … will reach out to a lot of students and help them manage some of the scheduling challenges that are associated with coming to college when they mix in some online courses with their regular, on-ground courses," says Colleen Lynch, associate dean for science, health, engineering, math and fitness education. "I think that will help support students who need to take their courses in a variety of modalities."

Increasing understanding around taking out loans and financial literacy overall is another box to check on the project's to-do list. The school will host a series of workshops for students and prospective students so they can understand how to pay for college and manage expenses without taking out massive loans.

Funding also will go to improve the school's database system in order for advisers and counselors to better identify students who are "at risk" of dropping out so they can intervene. The school hopes improved technology and data collection will increase retention rates and eventually graduation rates.

The Title V grant also comes with a $450,000 endowment for future scholarships for Hispanic, Latino or low-income SFCC students—but not for a while. The endowment funds, half from the grant and the other half from donations, will be available for minority and low-income students in 20 years.

SFCC has always been a Hispanic-serving institution—but the staff wants to do more for its students.

"You can be a Hispanic-serving institution just because of the numbers that you have; that doesn't mean you're providing any special services," says Julie Gallegos, the grant's project director. "We're trying to go beyond.