Studies show that it's far easier to get into college than to stay in college — and that was true even before the COVID pandemic threw an additional wrench into things. Today, as many as 33% of undergraduates do not complete their degree programs, according to Education Data Initiative, an educational research organization. Overall, a whopping 39 million Americans decided to leave college in July 2020, with just under 1 million re-enrolling this fall.

The lack of a degree can follow someone throughout life, compromising their ability to earn a livable wage. And while improving retention might seem formidable, it's sometimes the simplest solutions that make the biggest difference.

Case in point: At the Northfield Community College Collaborative (NCCC), a new child-care program is helping remove a significant obstacle for parents of young children, allowing them to focus on their studies while their children are lovingly cared for nearby.

We caught up with NCCC Project Manager Greg Gianopoulos to tell us more.

Q: Northfield is a city with heavy-hitting colleges Carleton and St. Olaf. Did your collaborative arise out of a need to give support to promising students in your community who wanted an alternative?

A: NCCC has served as a bridge to post-secondary opportunities for students in Rice County since 2018. By providing child care, as well as in-person and online community college classes, one-on-one tutoring and career planning support, the collaborative has helped students graduate with associate of arts and other degrees, transfer to four-year colleges, receive scholarships and advance their career potential in many fields. Carleton and St. Olaf have been huge supporters of our work in the community.

Q: How many students do you support, and what can you tell us about them?

A: Last year, we supported 85 students. Our program is open to anyone with a high school diploma or GED. In alignment with the Northfield Promise benchmarks, NCCC is committed to removing barriers and serving students to help them reach their goals. In 2021-2022, 95% of our students were first-generation college attendees, 83% were students of color and 87% were from low-income households.

Q: What tends to get in the way of their studies?

A: The most common barrier is managing school alongside a full work schedule and other life responsibilities.

Q: That's a nice segue into the program that has brought some parents back into the classroom. Was this fall the first time that child-care assistance was offered?

A: Yes. This fall, we began offering free child care to students during class, through a grant from Women in Northfield Giving Support (WINGS). This grant funds four child-care specialists from Carleton and St. Olaf, some of whom are majoring in education and have aspirations to become teachers.

Q: So, the kids essentially go to college with their parents?

A: Yes, the child care is in the same building as in-person classes. When NCCC students who are parents arrive, the child-care specialists welcome their children and initiate activities together, such as coloring and board games. Child care is offered Monday through Thursday, every night that we hold in-person classes in Northfield.

Q: And you offer meals to students, too?

A: We offer students meals before their evening classes, provided by the Carleton Food Recovery Network.

Q: Can parents bring more than one child?

A: Definitely!

Q: What can you tell us about WINGS?

A: WINGS is a volunteer-led network of women who pool together resources to improve the lives of women and youth in the Northfield area. It was founded in 2000 and has grown to be one of the largest local grantors — it's given over $1 million to local nonprofit organizations.

Q: How many students took advantage of the child-care option this fall?

A: Three students took advantage of the child-care programming regularly this fall. We invite additional parents in the Rice County area to reach out to NCCC and consider if it is a good fit for them.

Q: What are you hearing from these parents about how this is making a difference?

A: That it provides students the space to give full attention to class. It's having a positive impact on the child-care providers, as well.

Q: Aside from child care, parents can also receive one-on-one tutoring. What are subject areas most commonly requested?

A: Statistics, sociology and English. We have a team of staff members and volunteers who are available for tutoring from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Thursday. We also provide assistance in filling out financial aid forms and applying for scholarships.

Q: Do you plan to continue the program next year? Any changes in the works?

A: We are beginning to evaluate what has been successful and what can be improved. So far, we have learned that having a team of child-care specialists who are students at St. Olaf and Carleton is an excellent model and reflects our value for building partnerships in the community. We have also learned that students naturally begin to access child-care services as they get to know our child-care specialist team.