Forty percent of all African-American undergraduate students are enrolled in community colleges. However, according to a report released by the American Association of Community Colleges, only 26 percent of Black students and 30 percent of low-income community college students have completed either a degree or a certificate within six years.

In Pittsburgh, the Community College of Allegheny County is working to improve graduation rates with the help of a grant awarded from the U.S. Department of Education. The $1.59 million grant will enable CCAC to expand its capacity to serve low-income students with the goal of improving academic achievement.

“This stemmed from a strategic initiative to increase completion rates and close achievement gaps. It was a very innovative program and it was such a comprehensive project. The outcomes are measurable,” said Nancilee Burzachechi, the vice president of Institutional Advancement & External Relations at CCAC. “We’re so proud to be hosting this project and really proud of our faculty and staff.”

CCAC was one of 14 other institutions selected to receive the grant. A total of $5.4 million was awarded to colleges around the country.

CCAC plans to use the grant to create four learning centers, which will feature learner-centered engagement spaces, tutoring, faculty interaction and facilitated computer-assisted learning. The initiative is aimed at improving achievement in English and reading.

The initiative will also compliment another grant CCAC recently received from the Heinz Endowments. The Heinz Endowments funding is aimed at improving achievement rates in math through the use of math cafes, which will be integrated with the English and reading learning centers.

“It’s going to fund four centers. They’re designed to be very welcoming environments that reduce the stigma of seeking help. We’ll have facilitators available at many hours during the evening. Eventually we believe it will be a learning commons where you can drop in for math, English, or reading,” Burzachechi said.

One of CCAC’s goals is to increase the success rate of students in developmental English courses by 10 percent. They also hope the grant will increase the rate of completion of developmental English courses by 8 percent.

Another goal of the grant, specifically related to Black students, is to increase the rate of completion of developmental courses by African-American males by 23 percent. CCAC hopes to meet these three targets by September 2017.

The grant falls under the Department of Education’s Title III Strengthening Institutions Program. The funding is meant to aid institutions of higher education by providing funds to improve and strengthen the institution’s academic quality, institutional management and fiscal stability.

In order to be eligible for the grant, CCAC had to have a significant low-income student population, which could be demonstrated by the number of enrolled students receiving Pell Grants. Seventy-one percent of CCAC’s African-American students are considered low-income based on their Pell Grant eligibility.

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