The Learner Care Model: Taking Student Support and Success to the Next Level

Justin H. Lonon
Learning Abstracts

Dallas College is in the barrier-busting business. Those at the college, from leadership to faculty to staff, understand that community college students are inundated with challenges in life that can often force them to decide between pursuing an education and providing for their families. Through the innovative Learner Care Model, Dallas College Student Care Network provides holistic services to ensure that basic needs are met and that students are supported as they pursue their educational goals.

From coaching to financial aid to mental health care, the institution’s learner care approach intentionally focuses on student wellness and support. The model reimagines every student touchpoint and creates a system that looks at the whole student, from tuition, textbooks, and tutoring to physical, mental, financial, social, and family needs. Dallas College has developed extensive partnerships with community agencies to build capacity within the institution and provide learning opportunities for students outside the classroom. This, in turn, allows the college to collect data to assess programming and make data-informed decisions.

The guiding framework of the Student Care Network is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Students need housing, food, and clothing to survive. If these basic physiological and safety needs are not being met, students are neither ready, nor able, to focus on their academic goals. At Dallas College, assistance is provided through the Basic Needs and Community Connections department, which oversees on-campus food pantries and clothing closets and helps students find community resources. The office of Student Care Coordination oversees Dallas College CARES Teams that focus on helping students who may need mental health support. The holistic case management approach incorporates a sense of love and belonging to ensure that students feel part of the institution, which builds positive self-esteem. Under this system, no student goes unnoticed. Through intentional conversations and interventions, students are supported to reach their academic and personal benchmarks.

The goal is to empower students to reach their full potential. Removing barriers and breaking the cycle of generational poverty enables Dallas College students to build self-worth and find a means to a better life.

Student Care Network

Dallas College’s Student Care Network is a holistic system of care with services and resources committed to helping students break down barriers to success beyond academic needs. The entire institutional structure is focused on student success. Success coaches, administrators, or faculty may refer students to services, or students may self-refer. Once a student care form is submitted, a Student Care Coordinator reaches out within two business days to set up a video, phone, or on-campus consultation.

Student Care Coordinators work to provide the best plan for overcoming obstacles for each student. They put the student in touch with resources to help them fulfill their needs and remain successful in college. Among the resources available at all seven Dallas College campuses are health care, counseling, food pantries, clothing closets, family services and products (e.g., diapers), transportation and transit passes, SNAP assistance, child care, financial literacy training, technology loans, and emergency aid money.

Since 2021, Dallas College has doubled the number of licensed professional counselors and nurses available at each campus. While typical spring to fall persistence is around 56 percent, 73 percent of students who received a vaccine and 74 percent who sought mental health counseling during spring 2022 reenrolled in fall 2022. Of students attending in spring 2022 who utilized Dallas College Basic Needs and Community Connection services, 82 percent reenrolled in fall 2022.

From fall 2021 through fall 2022, the Dallas College Student Care Network:

  • Received 6,888 student referrals;
  • Provided 6,438 vaccines;
  • Served 12,349 students in its health care centers;
  • Held 10,074 therapy sessions;
  • Served 13,861 students in food pantries; and
  • Provided 403,000 pounds of food to 10,983 students and community members at mobile food drives.

Support From Grants

As Dallas College has worked diligently to provide more resources to its students, external grants and funding have helped to build additional capacity.

  • A $100,000 grant from the Dallas Foundation provided seed money to launch free drop-in child care on Dallas College’s El Centro Campus through the YMCA.
  • The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board awarded a $247,000 implementation grant to support the Family Care Initiative.
  • The Josephine Leeper Memorial Scholarship was launched to cover the cost of education for single parents.

Dallas College graduate poses with her children

Innovative Child Care Resources

To lessen the expense of child care as a barrier to parents attending college and meeting their educational goals, Dallas College has increased the available options on its campuses. As of fall 2023, child care is provided on five campuses—Brookhaven, Cedar Valley, Eastfield, El Centro, and Mountain View. Child care vouchers for other providers are also available through the Student Care Network for qualified students.

A Bezos Academy Montessori-inspired preschool opened in April 2023 on the Cedar Valley campus, and a second one is opening on the Mountain View campus in fall 2023. The facilities provide a tuition-free, year-round child care option for students and the community. Children attending the facilities receive free breakfast and lunch as well as an optional packed dinner. Furthermore, Dallas College launched its Young Scholars Program at the El Centro Campus in partnership with the YMCA; the program provides enrolled students drop-in child care for children aged 3-12.

The Child Care Group operates an Early Head Start and Head Start center on the Eastfield Campus. The facility provides age-appropriate education for income-eligible families. Children are fed breakfast, lunch, and healthy snacks, and extended care is available. Dallas Independent School District operates Early Head Start and Head Start programs on the Brookhaven Campus.

Family Care Initiative

Complementing the Student Care Network, the Dallas College Family Care Initiative provides support in English and Spanish to current students in good standing who are also parents, or expectant parents, by offering wraparound services via a three-tiered approach.

  • The first tier provides basic needs support and child care safety equipment. Among the supplies available are car seats, high chairs, booster seats, playpens, safety gates, formula, diapers, hygiene items, bicycle helmets, fire alarms, CO2 detectors, and other items upon request.
  • The second tier focuses on financial literacy and nutritional education support.
  • The third tier focuses on academic support, ensuring that student parents stay connected to their success coach.

Parents approved for family care are provided a support team of Dallas College staff, including a Student Care Coordinator, success coach, professional licensed counselor, and academic tutor.

Scholarship to Support Single Parents

Distributed by Dallas College Foundation, the Josephine Leeper Memorial Scholarship was established in the memory of former educator Josephine Leeper to provide financial assistance to single parents striving to attain a degree or certification. The $1,200 scholarship is available to students taking at least six credit hours of classes at any Dallas College campus. Students who maintain a 2.5 GPA are eligible to reapply for a second award of $1,200 for the following semester.

Innovative Student Support

Dallas College has invested resources to transform its system of Academic Advisors into Success Coaches. In the past, each advisor was responsible for up to 1,200 students. As of 2023 the student-to-coach ratio averages one coach per 350 students.

Acting as case managers, the coaches support the holistic needs of students, connecting them to resources to help break down barriers to success. The coaches receive 100 hours of training and development in the first three months of employment and ongoing professional development related to case management. They learn to

  • Clarify the pathway: Follow processes and critical steps to engage with new students.
  • Help students choose and enter a pathway: Formulate personalized goals and success plans with students.
  • Help students stay on the pathway: Monitor and support students and provide real-time interventions.
  • Move students to completion and transition: Assist students with transition to the workforce or transfer to a university.

Beginning in 2020, Dallas College took measures to ensure that its large population of nontraditional students living complex and busy lives could access Success Coaches and support when needed. Virtual evening hours were added, allowing students to get help from 10:00 a.m. to midnight, Monday to Friday, and in-person hours are now offered to 7:00 p.m. In the next few years, training will be enhanced with the launch of a Case Management Studio, which will train Dallas College Success Coaches alongside case managers from other organizations throughout the community.

Technology to Enhance Student Equity

It is impossible to realize academic equity without student access to technology. Laptops and hotspots are available to Dallas College students free of charge, and computer labs are accessible in each campus library, with extended hours from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. In addition, the college completed the implementation of Azure Virtual Desktop for all students in 2023. This innovation establishes technical parity and affordability because the compute component is now virtualized in the cloud.

Dallas College is also implementing a 100-gigabyte redundant ring at its main campuses and administrative offices, providing a tenfold increase in broadband Internet across all of the main campuses. The college is refreshing and expanding its Wi-Fi capabilities across all locations and has upgraded its learning management system to Brightspace. Azure Virtual Desktop, coupled with the broadband Internet and Wi-Fi initiatives and the Brightspace platform, enable Dallas College to teach students from any location on any device with a browser and Internet access, establishing digital equity for all students.

Future planned innovations include the 2025 implementation of a student-facing enterprise resource planning system using WorkDay, enhancing student experiences, and providing employees with additional resources to improve efficiencies around student support.

Focused Enrollment Strategies

Dallas College cannot begin to help its communities overcome generational poverty without making enrollment more accessible and ending barriers to higher education. Beginning in fall 2021, Dallas College conducted special enrollment events—Register Ready sessions at partner school districts and Super Saturday registration—to make registration more accessible. The college removed financial barriers through federal funding and conducted a calling campaign.

Dallas College’s transformation from student advising to success coaching helped to reinforce enrollment strategies. Other enrollment innovations include earlier registration dates and new student orientation, and offering classes at more accessible times, days, and locations. Dallas College also took a deep look at removing barriers by examining the validity of student holds.

At Dallas College, the Learner Care Model is key to ensuring that students receive the support they need to meet their basic needs, stay in college, successfully reach their goals, and obtain self-actualization.

Lead image: Dallas College volunteers distribute food during a drive-through pantry event

Justin H. Lonon is Chancellor at Dallas College in Dallas, Texas.

Opinions expressed in Learning Abstracts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.