Jonathan Tucker sits down for an hour each week with Rick Leith, a professor at his community college, to talk about whatever is on his mind.
It doesn't sound particularly revolutionary. But leaders of Howard Community College have found that students who meet regularly with volunteer "coaches" are significantly more likely to continue their studies than classmates who do not.
In a sector of higher education known for yielding more dropouts than graduates, any program proved to keep students in school is likely to get a closer look. President Barack Obama launched a national search this fall for solutions to the retention problem at the first-ever White House Summit on Community Colleges. The administration is chasing a goal of 5 million new community college graduates by 2020 under the American Graduation Initiative.
National data suggest barely one-fifth of students who enroll in community colleges complete their studies more or less on time. Community college students are more likely than their four-year peers to juggle full-time jobs, parenthood, poverty and other circumstances that can hinder a college education.
Howard Community College reports that 57 percent of students either graduate or transfer to four-year colleges within four years of enrolling. One reason is Step UP, a program of coaching and support launched five years ago at the Columbia campus.
A committee of faculty and staff was looking to improve retention, the share of students who return from one semester to the next. The group interviewed students who had left and asked what might have helped them succeed.
The response was unexpected. Students said they had lapsed in their studies because "they weren't convinced that it mattered," said Sue Frankel, an English professor who directs the coaching program.
High school students have parents, teachers and counselors prodding them forward. College students are largely left to fend for themselves.
Yet community college students face myriad conflicts and distractions. Helen Heffer, an adjunct philosophy instructor and coach, made a pagelong list of the complications facing the 17 students in one of her classes.
"Every semester, I am struck by the immensity of life for the students here," she said.
Tucker, 33, started at a four-year college, dropped out, spent time in the military, worked at a heating and air-conditioning company, then was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. His mother died shortly before he entered Howard Community College two years ago. He works 25 hours a week to support his wife and three children.
"I actually worked out the math: I have nine hours in a 24-hour period when I'm not working, attending class or trying to study," he said. "This is exactly what you feel like when you burn the candle at both ends."
Inspired by the Obama administration's graduation goal and by renewed focus on college completion in recent years, community colleges around the region are focusing on retention as never before.
The Student Achievement and Success Program at Anne Arundel Community College helps under-prepared minority, low-income and first-generation students succeed with academic support and mentoring. The program yields higher retention rates than those for the college as a whole.
Students in the First Year Experience Program at Montgomery College write personal education plans. Retention from the first semester to the second is 10 percent higher for students who enroll than for those who do not.
Male students at Prince George's Community College meet twice a month to discuss books, sports and relationships in a program called Men Moving Forward. The initiative proved so popular, female students launched a parallel effort, Meeting in the Ladies Room.
The Howard program began with 15 students and their volunteer coaches. It has grown, mostly by word of mouth, to 121 participants. Coaches include the college president, Kate Hetherington, two trustees and dozens of faculty and staff members. Adjuncts and part-timers get a $300 stipend each semester; everyone else coaches without monetary compensation.
Coaches are encouraged to spread the word. But none of the 9,500 for-credit students at Howard are targeted for coaching, and no one is required to participate.
The program is designed as a forum for students to share the worries — sick relatives, punishing hours, unpaid bills — that prompt so many to abandon their studies. Coaches offer empathy, encouragement and advice. Mostly, though, they are there to listen.
"Nobody's judging them," Heffer said. "We are pulling for the student, but nobody has an agenda for them."
Four years of data show weekly coaching is especially useful to "developmental" students, those not yet ready for college-level work. Dropout rates are especially high for those students. But year-to-year retention has ranged from 86 percent to 96 percent for developmental students in the Step UP program, compared with about 75 percent for those who were not coached. The program also has boosted grade point averages.
"Our students are doing well, and our students are coming back. That was our mission," said Nassim Ebrahimi, a research associate at the college who volunteers as a coach.
Ebrahimi meets regularly with Kena Douglas, a mother of three who is pursuing an associate's degree in general science. Douglas wants to transfer to a four-year college for a nursing degree.
Ebrahimi has helped Douglas learn to be a full-time student as well as a mother with aging parents.
"Nassim helps me to fight when I want to just give up," Douglas said.
Weekly coaching has proved equally effective with traditional college-age students such as Patrick Daniel, 19, a graduate of Hammond High School in Columbia.
Daniel met Michael Driscoll, a records administrator who would be his coach, on the first day of college. Daniel says he now tells his coach things he wouldn't tell his mother, because their relationship carries less baggage.
"There was a point of time when I thought school was a waste of time for me, and I just wanted to work," said Daniel, a part-time maintenance man. "He was like, 'It can't hurt to get an education.'"