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October 27, 2015

Jasmine Owens speaking at Cape Cod Community College's graduation (Christine Pauk/Cape Cod Community College).

For many of the hundreds of thousands of students attending community college in the United States, focusing solely on school is not an option. According to the results of a WGBH News polls, 70 percent of students enrolled in community college are also working - many of them full-time. In response, community colleges are trying to provide the right support for working students who struggle to stay afloat.

It's graduation day at Cape Cod Community College in Hyannis, and Jasmine Owens stands tall behind a podium in her blue cap and gown. She’s proud to have been chosen as the class commencement speaker.

"We've all worked so hard to get to this point... Jobs, kids, family obligations - blizzard after blizzard - and yet we still managed to get our salt and shovels out and strap on our boots to make it to class day after day," she tells the crowd.

Like many of her classmates, Jasmine’s path to graduation has not been easy. She dropped out of school several times and tried other community colleges, all while working more than 35 hours a week at Supercuts.

"I was working full-time,” Jasmine says. "It was overwhelming."

A national WGBH News poll shows Jasmine’s struggles are typical of many community college students. Thirty seven percent of the students we surveyed who are currently enrolled in classes told us they work full-time. And one-third of those who had to drop out said it was because of work responsibilities.

Shanna Jaggars, an assistant director at Community College Research Center at Columbia University, says it’s difficult for students to work and study at the same time.

"Some people are really skilled at being able to balance both a heavy work-load and a school load,” Jaggars says. “Other people don’t quite yet have the practice that they need to be able to manage those multiple responsibilities."

Jaggars says students like Jasmine who work full-time and study part-time take longer to graduate.

"The longer it takes for a student to get through something, the more likely it is that some kind of event will come up in their life that will derail them and induce them to say, ‘I can’t handle this right now,’” says Jaggars.

Community colleges are trying to accommodate working students like Jasmine by offering night and weekend classes. Some even offer financial incentives like grants to pay for books and living expenses.

Still, Cape Cod Community College President John Cox says it can take years for students to graduate, even if they’re only working part-time.

“A lot of our students don't get done in three years, and it can take upwards of six years to get through," says Cox.

In fact, only 14 percent of Cape Cod Community College students graduate within three years, in part because 71 percent of them are working. President Cox says the school is trying to reach students where they are.

"We've recognized that not everybody can make it to campus,” Cox says. “It's an ongoing challenge. We're looking at more methods, ways to increase the online and the blended learning opportunities that we have."

Some of those efforts may be effective, but they're not widely available yet. And many students are still left to choose between work and school.

Last spring, Jasmine decided to begin focusing solely on school; she quit her job to complete her associate’s degree.

“I said, 'You know what, I'm just going to go gung-ho so I'm not drawing it out any further,' and it's worked," says Jasmine.

Jasmine Owens is pursuing her B.A. in accounting at UMass Dartmouth (Kirk Carpezza/WGBH).

This fall, Jasmine enrolled at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth to get her B.A. in accounting.

To pay for books and other expenses, Jasmine had to return to work as a home health aide.

Jasmine hopes that this time, she can strike the right balance between achieving her goals and keeping afloat financially.

This is part two of our ongoing series on community colleges, "College Material." Throughout this week, we're exploring our poll results, meeting students and talking with educators. To see the rest of our stories, visit College Material: Community Colleges Come of Age.

community colleges, higher ed, increasing access, cape cod community college, college material

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