UChicago Harris Public Policy researchers study a program designed to help disadvantaged students finish their associate degree and move up the economic ladder—a partnership that features Harris alumni in pivotal roles.

Editor's note: This story is one in a series,#PolicyForward, that spotlights how faculty, students and alumni at the Harris School of Public Policy are driving impact for the next generation. Leading up to the May 3 grand opening of Harris’ new home at the Keller Center, these stories will examine three of the most critical issues facing our world: strengthening democracy, fighting poverty and inequality, and confronting the global energy challenge.

Kelly Hallberg MPP'05

A partnership between the University of Chicago’s Poverty Lab and nonprofit student support organization One Million Degrees aims to help transform community colleges into more powerful engines of economic mobility. 

There’s a lot of room for improvement. Only a third of first-time, full-time students who enroll in community colleges nationally earn an associate degree within three years.

But researchers at the Poverty Lab are hopeful about the impact of One Million Degrees (OMD), and are in the midst of a multi-year study of its efforts to help disadvantaged students. The study, a rigorous randomized controlled trial involving more than 4,000 students at the City Colleges of Chicago and Harper College in suburban Palatine, should lead to more effective policies at institutions that can play a key role in alleviating poverty, says Kelly Hallberg MPP’05, a Poverty Lab researcher who is one of the principal investigators on the OMD study.

“The hope is we’ll be able to help community colleges do things differently and really move the needle for students,” Hallberg says.

The Poverty Lab is part of Urban Labs, a set of five institutions tackling urban issues housed within the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago. Evaluating the effectiveness of OMD’s efforts with community college students is part of a wider push at Harris Public Policy to reduce poverty.  

Paige Ponder, OMD’s chief executive officer, says the group’s model for supporting and accelerating community college students aims to build on the success of the Freshman On-Track initiative. Based on findings by the UChicago Consortium on School Research that high school students are four times more likely to graduate when they successfully complete their freshman year, educators have used a holistic approach to support high school students and closely monitor their academic momentum.

Ponder says that just as high school officials have realized it is possible to dramatically improve student success, educators focused on colleges and universities are starting to rethink what post-secondary students need—especially students who are first in their families to attend college or who come from disadvantaged demographic groups.

“We’re just at the very beginning of this set of conversations in higher education,” Ponder says. “We’re talking about how the institutions need to catch up to support today’s students--not just the students of the 50s, 60s, 70s, or even the 90s.” 

Low graduation rates at community colleges in Illinois and across the country are vexing to UChicago’s Hallberg and others who study poverty and education. Community colleges are relatively inexpensive, attract large numbers of disadvantaged students and can serve as a crucial rung on the ladder to greater economic security and success. 

What’s intriguing about OMD’s program is its “systemic approach,” Hallberg says. Students accepted as OMD scholars are given a financial stipend, academic tutoring, and career counseling as well as a coach who offers personal support.

Few of these sorts of student-assist programs at the community college level have been studied carefully to date, Hallberg says. And she’s excited about the nature of the OMD evaluation. All 4,274 students in the study were eligible for OMD’s services, but only half were offered a spot in the program through a lottery system. As a result, differences in enrollment rates, progress in earning credits and graduation rates can be clearly attributed to the OMD program. 

“The only difference between the students in the program and the students in the control group is the flip of the coin,” Hallberg says. “This will rule out the argument that any differences in outcomes for scholars are a result of OMD simply finding the students that were going to do well anyways.”


Brittany Morgan

Brittany Morgan, research manager for the Poverty Lab’s evaluation, says OMD’s personal coaches appear to be particularly powerful. There are more than 500 coaches in the program, all of them volunteers and matched with students based on career interest. These dedicated community members have done such things as taken their OMD scholars on tours of four-year universities and discussed scholars’ potential career plans. They also have simply listened to scholars with a kind ear, Morgan says.

“That type of social support, that sense of belonging and that someone cares about you, is really, really critical,” says Morgan, who has an undergraduate degree in global studies from UChicago and is earning her master’s in public policy at Harris’ evening MA program.

The Poverty Lab study has been marked by close relationships between the team at OMD and UChicago’s researchers, including Marianne Bertrand, a professor in the Booth School of Business who is co-leading the evaluation with Hallberg.

For example, Poverty Lab researchers have joined Ponder as she discussed preliminary findings with officials at City Colleges of Chicago. “They’re side by side with us in the conversations with college presidents, saying, ‘Ok, what does this mean for you?’” Ponders says. “That’s tremendous.”

Joanna Hoffman MPP’16, district director for external research partnerships and learning at City Colleges of Chicago, says she and her colleagues appreciate having a such a thorough analysis of a program designed to support their students. And just as UChicago has worked closely with Chicago Public Schools at the K-12 level, City Colleges is hopeful the Poverty Lab-OMD study could be the start of more collaboration with UChicago, Hoffman says. 

Hoffman herself embodies that budding City College-UChicago connection. She graduated from Harris in 2016 with a Master’s Degree in Public Policy, and says her training in the program prepared her well for her current role, where she supports the Poverty Lab-OMD study and manages other research projects. “My experience at Harris helped me bring a real data-driven mindset to all the work I’m doing,” Hoffman says.


Carmelo Barbaro

The Poverty Lab-OMD study won’t just show if OMD’s model works overall, but could point to how it is most effective, says Carmelo Barbaro, the founding executive director of the Poverty Lab. For instance, the evaluation could show whether it is wiser to target existing community college students or high school students, he says.

Barbaro sees the study as a perfect example of the way the Poverty Lab, Harris and the University of Chicago are engaging with local officials to bring the power of social science to bear on social problems. “We are the bridge between the analytic and research expertise of the university and people out in the world doing hard work who need answers to their questions,” he says.

Barbaro also believes the Poverty Lab-OMD study is part of a thawing of the conversation around poverty. He says that while poverty levels have hovered between 9 and 13 percent for decades, recent public attention to income inequality, to structural racism and to automation and the future of work are enabling a fresh examination of how to address socio-economic security and mobility.

“The debate has been stuck in a very unconstructive, ideological place. But I see the conversation shifting and I see reasons for hope,” Barbaro says. “Studies like this one can mobilize that hope.”

Read more #PolicyForward stories that spotlight how faculty, students and alumni at the Harris School of Public Policy are driving impact for the next generation.