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RCC, Northeastern partner to guide students toward master’s degrees

Pressley secures federal funding for three years

Avery Bleichfeld

When Earlene Avalón, a professor at Northeastern University, attended college as a first-generation student, she felt overwhelmed with the financial challenges of higher education, including affording textbooks and transportation.

Now, she’s hoping a new associate degree to master’s degree accelerator program the university has launched in partnership with Roxbury Community College will help other students better face challenges crimping their access to higher education opportunities.

The program will offer RCC students a streamlined pathway to finish their associate degree and then earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees. The focus will be on getting students prepared for jobs in STEM fields and will include paths into health care administration, biotechnology and information technology.

With an allocation of $1 million through the U.S. Congress’ Community Project Funding program, which allows legislators to request federal funding for state, municipal or nonprofit projects, the partnership is slated for an initial three-year run. The grant was earmarked by Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley.

Drawn from a model partnership Northeastern already has run with Middlesex Community College, the program is designed to offer a range of services, not only financial support to students throughout the second half of their time at RCC and Northeastern, but also access to textbooks and transportation. A laptop loan program will provide up-to-date technology and software.

That breadth of offerings means that, with the $1 million, the program is estimated to serve 20 to 30 students.

“I know that that doesn’t sound like a large amount of students, especially with a million dollars, but you have to remember that that’s all the way from an associate’s level through a master’s level tuition with all the wraparound support services,” said Hillel Sims, the dean of STEM, radiologic technology and program partnerships at RCC.

All those other pieces of support are key to making sure students in the program succeed, Avalón said.

“To not be able to buy a bus pass or pass (for) the subway, that prohibits you, necessarily, from getting to class on time,” she said. “If you don’t have the ability to have a laptop that has access to Wi-Fi or have the software you need … to be competitive in the classroom, that’s going to be a barrier.”

Also central to supporting students, she said, is the access to a program navigator. That person will act as an advisor to students throughout their transition from community college to the bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

“I was a first-generation college student, and I didn’t know what questions to even ask, and it wasn’t like I could go home and say, ‘Hey, Mom, can you help me with how to deal with the registrar’s office or financial aid?’” Avalón said. “If you don’t necessarily know what questions to ask, what resources are available, it just makes the process a little bit more challenging for you.”

Sims said the program allows RCC students to aim for higher or a broader range of positions. For example, he said that students who attend the college with a health care focus often work toward roles in nursing or radiologic technology. While those pathways would still be open to students, the advanced degrees — which could include a master’s in public health — would also allow for additional career opportunities.

Despite, in name, focusing on the transition from an associate degree to a master’s degree, the program will first help guide students into a bachelor’s degree program, which Avalón said takes roughly two additional years, before they can continue on to their master’s, if they choose.

“It is my full hope that 100% of the students who participate in the program take advantage of [the option to get a master’s degree], but life happens,” Avalón said. “So, for some students, they want to just maybe get the bachelor’s degree and then figure out what they might want for a master’s degree, but this program is really designed to help streamline the process for students.”

Though current federal funding for the program is planned to last for three years, Sims said he hopes this will just be the beginning.

“What Congresswoman Pressley did is, she lit the fire,” he said. “She started the funding so that we can get this program off the ground, but we’ve been saying since even before we applied for the funding, this is only going to go so far. … We plan to keep looking — whether it’s other state, local, federal funding, or maybe even some of those employers that can help support it — but we would like this program to go well beyond these three years.”

Though Pressley requested the funding in 2022, Sims said it’s particularly important now, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in June on affirmative action.

While the Supreme Court prohibited using race as category for college admissions, he said, employers still see the need for diversity among their employees.

“We’ve had many employers come to us and they say that their fields, their industries are growing, and there aren’t enough people coming out of the traditional college system,” Sims said. “There’s an untapped market, there’s people with skill sets and ideas that have not been explored in some of the minority and disadvantaged communities — and they want them.”

Following its launch on Oct. 31, Pressley said she was thrilled to see the program moving forward.

“At a time when education equity is under assault by the corrupt, far-right-majority Supreme Court, it’s encouraging to see our institutions of higher learning re-commit to creating pathways for Black and brown students to be leaders of our health, biotech and IT industries,” Pressley said in a written statement. “This is the type of bold, intentional and race-conscious investment needed in this moment to address the glaring disparities in access to education and close the racial wealth gap.”

The program’s launch comes as the state grapples with how to respond to the Supreme Court’s decision. Guidance put out last month by Gov. Maura Healey and Attorney General Andrea Campbell focused on helping community college students transfer into traditional four-year institutions.

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