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Peer Perspectives

Education Meets Social Work on the College Campus

By Christiane Petrin Lambert, MA, MSW, LCSW

Historically, higher education has served as a critical threshold through which many people enter into economic prosperity, especially for those who are first in their families to attend college and/or from low-income backgrounds. Increasingly, access to postsecondary education ensures socioeconomic equity. According to a 2016 report by Georgetown University’s Center for Education and the Workforce, “Over 95% of jobs created during the recovery have gone to college-educated workers, while those with a high school diploma or less are being left behind.”

Yet, disproportionately, the populations who are most likely to don bachelor’s degrees on their walls are white, middle, and upper class students. For them, the keys to success in college are engrained in their everyday lives, from their earliest conversations and expectations spoken at the dinner table. According to 2016 data from the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, only 60% of all students who begin at a four-year college or university will graduate from that institution in six years. As compared with 63% of their white counterparts, 41% of black students and 53.5% of Hispanic students complete college. This stunning disparity in college graduation rates, coupled with workforce development gaps to fill, presents an opportunity for social workers to play a key role in leveling this socioeconomic inequity and ensuring that all students can ascend the graduation stage.

Institutions of higher education are embracing their roles in alleviating the impact of poverty on student learning and college completion. First-generation movements, such as I’m First and Brown University’s FLiCenter, remove the stigma and isolation that students feel when they are the first in their families to traverse a college campus.

The field of social work is poised to serve students as the underpinning of the profession, namely service, social justice, and dignity and worth of a person, intersect with edicts of education. Social work has been practiced in elementary and secondary school settings for decades. However, the role of social work beyond the 12th grade is a relatively new and growing development for the field. The practice of collaborative interdisciplinary models of student support to enhance academic success can tie together campus offices with specific functions, such as counseling, academic tutoring, advising, and disability accommodations. The field of social work expands educational models to include the student-in-context and employs a holistic bio-psycho-social-spiritual assessment of what a student needs for success in college.

One state college has actively experimented with this coupling of education and social work, and significantly closed gaps in achievement rates. Rhode Island College (RIC), the state’s oldest (1854) comprehensive public postsecondary institution, enjoys a long history as a “college of opportunity” for first-generation college students. The Learning for Life (L4L) network is a research-based, student-to-student initiative designed to seed innovation and collaboration across campus to support underrepresented students in completing college. L4L accomplishes the following interrelated goals:

  • crafting and testing a holistic, student-centered, scalable, and sustainable peer-to-peer model of student support, specifically targeting and fashioning services to underrepresented students; and
  • serving as a catalyst for institutional learning and development based on the changing student experience.

At the heart of L4L is the Navigator-to-Scholar model of support, developed in partnership with the RIC School of Social Work. The navigator model provides comprehensive services through peer mentorship and linkages to resources through a network of certified student advocates called navigators. The benefits work both ways. Scholars receive support from students who know their challenges firsthand and linkages to the resources they need to succeed; navigators develop leadership and other skills as well as earn a Certificate of Undergraduate Studies through the RIC School of Social Work. The navigator model involves addressing outside barriers (e.g., food insecurity, transportation, and housing), developing engagement opportunities on campus and increasing the natural support networks. As stated in a 2016 evaluation, “The navigator model is intended to build a sense of empowerment … If you can do it, I can do it.”

Additional program elements include the following:

  • community-building events, such as monthly themed community lunches for support in applying for scholarships, accessing free income tax preparation, and engaging in stress reduction workshops;
  • partnerships on and off campus to bring new resources for students, e.g., Food for Thought, providing meals and snacks to sustain and nourish students, comprehensive learning evaluations in partnership with RIC’s Counseling and Educational Psychology Department and Disability Services Center, and small, real-time grants called the Extraordinary Need Fund to cover such emergencies as housing, child care, transportation, books, educational supplies, and refurbished computers;
  • targeted outreach and support through partnerships, such as Finish Strong, an outreach initiative to students who left college before finishing and coordinating their return, partnering with a resource team in enrollment management services.

L4L programming, such as peer-peer support, community building, and linkages to resources are effective examples of how common social work practices are employed to increase student morale, reduce academic stress, and minimize obstacles that can impede academic achievement. Longer-term solutions require advocacy on and off campus, an expanded definition of student support, and an amplification of student voices to influence policy, practice, and even infrastructure. L4L’s interrelated mission of serving students and amplifying their voices reflects both macro and micro practice.

Since launching in 2012, L4L has undergone annual project evaluations by Mimi Mumm, PhD, LICSW, a faculty member from RIC’s School of Social Work. These have resulted in 249 pages of data analysis, feedback, and recommendations that have guided L4L’s growth and path forward in providing holistic, comprehensive services for the 985 L4L scholars—students served through L4L—served to date. The scholars have represented nontraditional, underrepresented populations. According to a 2016 cumulative program evaluation by Mumm, 75% of L4L scholars identify as members of underrepresented ethnic or cultural populations (black, Latino, Hispanic, Asian, or Native American). This is a higher percentage than RIC students in general in which 67% of the students are white. One-half are the first in their families to attend college. Other common qualifiers include financial constraints, relying on public transportation, working 20-plus hours per week, and being an adult learner (older than age 25).

Results are very promising, with years of data indicating that L4L scholars persist at higher rates than the overall RIC population, despite facing the most significant obstacles to graduation. Some key markers of success include the following:

  • The year-to-year retention rate of L4L scholars entering RIC in fall 2014 as full-time, first-time freshmen is 88.5%, an increase of 2.5% since our report for fall 2013. Despite serving students who meet at-risk qualifiers, L4L’s retention rate is 12.3% higher than the overall RIC freshmen retention rate for students entering in fall 2014 (76.2%).
  • In addition to the official institutional retention rate, L4L’s evaluator developed a metric that captures the progress of students following nontraditional paths to graduation, with “Persistence,” according to Mumm, defined as “persisting into the next semester.”
  • “L4L scholars have a rate of persistence of 84%,” according to Mumm. “The L4L persistence rate is higher than the persistence rate for the RIC campus in general.”
  • Since L4L’s start, 54 senior or master’s level students have been hired and trained to serve as navigators, providing internship opportunities and a certificate of undergraduate studies. Nine L4L scholars later became navigators.
  • L4L has achieved national recognition through the American Association of State Colleges and Universities Innovation Exchange.
  • Part of our last evaluation in December 2016 invited 12 partners to participate in a brief survey, with one question asking, “What impact do you think L4L has had on campus?” One respondent replied, “The concept of L4L is representative of the much-needed evolution of the campus culture to be more nimble, responsive, and supportive to all of our students. … The impact of L4L (on) scholars and navigators has been transformative in their personal experiences at RIC.” 

During the summer of 2015, L4L conducted a qualitative study to hear from students about the elements of L4L that they thought most contributed to their success. From more than 55 pages of interviews, the following themes emerged: validation that leads to empowerment, a sense of community and belonging, the need for concrete resources for everyday living, the value of mentorship, and expanded communications to reach more students. As one student said, “Students need a place like this, where they feel like they are valued; their dreams are alive.”

Despite these early signs of promise, the L4L network is a budding application of social work in higher education. Additional opportunities for social work practice include long term care management for students with chronic mental health needs, and trauma-informed approaches in the college classroom, especially for survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, and returning combat veterans. The challenge lies in reconceptualizing education as more than a sum of required courses. Higher education promises the transformation from impoverished life experience to possibilities. The role of social work is to ensure that promise for all students.

— Christiane Petrin Lambert, MA, MSW, LCSW is the director of Learning for Life at Rhode Island College and was the first in her family to graduate from college.