Access to higher education is vital to creating thriving, equitable communities. Since 1992, the Community Foundation has grown our now robust Scholarship and Interest Free Loan program, connecting donors’ generosity with thousands of local college-bound students. Year after year, we’re invigorated and inspired by these students’ positivity, drive and personal stories—and we’re immensely honored to have played a part in getting them to college.

But what we haven’t known is how our scholars are faring in the long run. Are they graduating? If so, how long does it take? If not, why are they leaving school? Our questions about college completion for our students were galvanized by these parallel national trends:

FACT: 2/3 of all new jobs will require a 4-year degree.

However, only 1/3 of adults in our region have attained this educational goal. We need to build a more educated and skilled workforce for our region’s long-term economic growth and viability.

FACT: Shifting US demographics has created complex needs for college students.

The overall student population now hails from more diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, raising new considerations for ensuring accessibility and completion.

FACT: College completion has become a critical issue.

Higher enrollment isn’t creating more college graduates, as many leave school with the intention to return, but never do. This trend, known as “stopping out”, has become even more common at community colleges.


Average rate of stopping out after one year


Average graduation rates for 4-year institutions


Average graduation rates for 2-year institutions

College enrollments have doubled since the 1970s.

FACT: More and more students are enrolling in college.

Many young people recognize that new job opportunities require a bachelor’s degree. They understand that a college degree is key to an economically stable life.

FACT: The cost of college has increased alarmingly over the last few decades.

When it comes to paying for college, the playing field isn’t the same as it was years ago. In addition, the purchasing power of Federal Pell Grants has plummeted, further reducing financial aid for the students who need it most.

College expenses are 400% higher in 2019 than in 1990.

FACT: When students don’t finish college, they’re more apt to struggle financially, and less likely to thrive and contribute to their communities.

Students who stop out or drop out of college see 25% of their paychecks go to college loan repayment, yet they don’t have the economic benefit that comes with the credential. In fact, they’re paying for a credential that they may never receive.

These trends spurred us to take a deeper look at our past scholarship recipients and their college completion rates. In the summer of 2018, we commissioned a study, Western Mass Completes, with the expertise of Dr. Becky Packard.

What happened in Phase 1?

We Convened:

Ten local colleges and universities enthusiastically joined us in this endeavor, delving into the last eight years of their student data on CFWM scholarship awardees. We gathered information on the resources and systems in place at these schools, and collected findings from national research and articles.

We Discovered:

We Learned:

What happened in Phase 2?

Learning in Action

Since 2020, we have continued to work with all college partners and have delved deeper into why our awardees flourish. We want to uncover what makes the difference in their outcomes, and how we and our partner colleges can replicate those factors to help others access and attain their educational goals, which can help create a more skilled and educated workforce for our community.

Phase 2 has included four distinct components: 1) an interview project with recent CFWM scholarship recipients to gain their perspective on the application process and challenges to college completion, 2) continuing the institutional research partnership across WMC campuses in a meaningful way, 3) a joint innovation project where the ten campuses could explore collaboration on student success with a regional lens, and 4) financial aid outreach to meet the needs of students during the pandemic.

Actions Taken

Next Steps

Becky Packard, PhD, is a CFWM Trustee and Professor of Psychology and Education at Mount Holyoke College. A national leading expert in research on factors that contribute to higher education persistence, Dr. Packard led the Western Mass Completes study. As a first-generation college graduate herself, Packard is especially appreciative of how the numerous contexts of home, school, community, and work need to come together to support the educational progress of students. Dr. Packard has held multiple leadership roles at Mount Holyoke, including Associate Dean of Faculty, and she has provided consultation to dozens of colleges and universities working toward improving student success.

“The issue of college completion matters here in this region. Despite the many large structural challenges, we also learned more about a range of seemingly small barriers that face students every day. We were encouraged to learn about the multiple strategies colleges and universities in Western Mass were using to improve student success and help students reach the finish line.”

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