No Excuses: A Systemic Approach to Student Poverty

Amarillo College (AC), a community college in the Texas Panhandle, has revolutionized its approach to student success by adopting a “no excuses” framework for addressing student poverty. The college’s No Excuses Poverty Initiative serves as the connector between campus programs, services, and projects designed to increase student persistence and boost graduation and transfer rates. By systemically addressing poverty barriers, AC is ensuring that all students have equitable access to college resources.

AC was the first higher education institution to implement the No Excuses University philosophical framework developed by Damen Lopez’s TurnAround Schools organization (see http://noexcusesu.com/about/). The framework has prompted AC leadership, faculty, and staff to take responsibility for the whole student by setting high expectations and assisting students in reaching these expectations. When our students are not successful, we explore the reasons for their lack of success; but we ultimately bear the responsibility for having the right people, processes, or policies in place to support our students.

The No Excuses Poverty Initiative opened the door for us to recognize that our preconceived notions did not match reality. In the past, we held a narrow view of our students, believing that their college experiences were similar to our own. We did not see poverty as an issue demanding action. Yet we came to see that fulfilling the college’s mission—which focuses on changing lives, educating students, meeting industry needs, and serving the community—requires us to fully understand our students and the barriers they face.

Following the Data

In 2011, AC held a data summit for all faculty and staff. Our data did not paint a pretty picture of student success: our retention rates were lower than we had imagined, and our completion rates were barely in the double digits. As we sat together processing the data, we knew we needed to act. Our community needed us to improve.

We thought these distressing numbers meant that we needed to provide more academic support services and interventions. We made assumptions about student needs, fully expecting that limited tutoring hours, misaligned instructional practices, and scheduling challenges were the greatest barriers to student success. But when we began surveying and interviewing our students, we learned that their needs were profoundly different from what we had understood. While important, academic supports were not among the top ten barriers to completion that students identified. Instead, the greatest barriers to student success were all life related rather than classroom specific—and the most powerful and debilitating barrier was poverty, which affects 71 percent of AC students.

With these data in hand, we sought to understand the limitations that poverty creates. In fall 2011, we required all faculty to attend a professional development training hosted by Donna Beegle, an expert on addressing poverty barriers in education. Beegle prompted us to consider the systemic obstacles that institutions may create when working with individuals living in poverty. For example, educators may use inaccessible language to explain higher education to students, may fail to attend to students’ relational needs, and may treat student behaviors as though they stem from lack of motivation rather than from food and housing insecurity. To remove these obstacles, we must be willing to recognize and understand the confines that poverty places upon entire families, neighborhoods, and communities. 

The ARC

AC soon realized that responding to student needs with good will and care would not be enough. We had to take action. We thus established the Advocacy and Resource Center (ARC) as a home for our social services case management program, which provides students with coaching, counseling, social service intervention, access to a food pantry and a clothing closet (both stocked entirely by donation), and student peer advocacy (see https://www.actx.edu/arc/). The ARC connects students with resources on campus and in the community, including transportation, childcare, housing, food, and utility assistance.

Staffed with only two full-time social workers and one part-time assistant, the ARC relies on an extensive network of community partnerships and relationships to maximize resources for the 10 percent of AC’s student body that the center serves. To help these students meet basic life needs, the ARC’s staff works with over fifty local nonprofits that provide access to government-supported and privately funded services. Without these external partnerships, the college would be unable to eradicate the poverty barriers our students experience.

Working in coordination with West Texas A&M University, the ARC has become a field placement site for social work students seeking their bachelor’s or master’s degrees. Each semester, social work interns assist ARC staff, providing intensive case management to AC students. This expansion of staff comes at no financial cost to AC, since the social work interns are required to complete field practicums for their degrees.

Students have testified to the important role that the ARC plays in their success. As one student stated, “The ARC helped me pay for my school tuition, textbooks, and childcare. The food pantry helped to feed my children. But more than anything, this department was the place I would go to for emotional support and cry about how overwhelming my life was. Every step of the way, the ARC reassured [me], told me that I was worth being successful, and that I could do it. They gave me encouragement and hope.” 

A Suite of Services

The ARC’s work connects with several other efforts to support student success, including some that use technology. For example, AC’s early alert system allows faculty who have identified students needing academic and social services interventions to send electronic alerts to key student support staff. AC also uses predictive modeling software to create a risk indicator for each incoming student. By understanding an individual student’s life challenges prior to the start of classes, AC staff can connect the student to on-campus resources before barriers become insurmountable and the student is unable to complete a class or term.

Additionally, the No Excuses Poverty Initiative embraces a mentoring component, which pairs recent high school graduates experiencing poverty with AC faculty and staff. The mentoring program is designed to help students navigate college processes by immediately connecting them to support services, community resources, and academic interventions. 

AC’s Career and Employment Services Center partners with our local workforce agency, Workforce Solutions, to place a full-time career specialist on campus. This individual helps students gain access to immediate and future job search and employment services, labor market information, career planning and training, and financial aid, including subsidized or free childcare. The partnership is free to AC, which provides only office space for the career specialist. 

Finally, in fall 2016, AC opened two new centers to address two identified student success barriers. The AC Counseling Center offers individual and group counseling to students with the support of two licensed professional counselor interns, who are supervised by an AC psychology faculty member. The AC Legal Aid Clinic provides pro bono legal services to students by partnering with local bar-certified lawyers. 

Reflecting a Deep Commitment

Six years after launching the No Excuses Poverty Initiative, AC’s values and actions reflect our deep commitment to ensuring that our students achieve their educational goals. Our data show that if students access college and community resources, they will be successful. Since the initiative’s launch, A-to-C pass rates in developmental education courses and gateway courses have increased 20 percent and 9 percent, respectively, and fall-to-fall retention rates have increased 13 percent. We have also seen a 7 percent increase in three-year graduation rates, a 2 percent increase in transfer rates, and a 6 percent increase in three-year completion (combined transfer and graduation) rates. While we never expected to become advocates for removing poverty barriers, this work is the most rewarding element of our professional lives. Because of AC’s No Excuses Poverty Initiative and its systemic approach, we will no longer allow poverty to be the biggest barrier our students face—no excuses.


Russell Lowery-Hart is President of Amarillo College, Cara Crowley is Chief of Staff at Amarillo College, and Jordan Herrera is Director of Social Services at Amarillo College.

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