Freshmen move into their residence hall last Wednesday at Thomas College in Waterville. The college has received a $1.3 million grant to fund a program that helps students attain success. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

WATERVILLE — Thomas College in Waterville has been awarded a $1.3 million grant to fund for another five years a program that supports at-risk students.

The TRIO Support Services Program, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, provides services to help students reach their academic and professional goals, according to Thomas officials.

To be eligible for the program, students must meet federal income-eligibility guidelines, be a first-generation college student or have a documented disability.

Students in the TRIO program at Thomas receive financial literacy training, success coaching and assistance applying to graduate or professional school.

The program also helps students meet the requirements of the college’s Guaranteed Job Program, which guarantees students they will find a job within six months of graduation by following a set of guidelines.

If students follow the steps but still do not find a job within that six-month period, the school will take on either the student’s monthly federal student loan payments for up to a year or let the students start a master’s degree program at Thomas for free.

“That part is really important for our TRIO students,” said Debbie Cunningham, vice president of student success at the West River Road college. “Especially with our first generation and low-income students, having the security of the guaranteed job program allows them to have the confidence that if something happens and they aren’t able to get that really great job right out of college, the college will take on their federal student loans.”

Cunningham said Thomas officials are excited the school is able to continue the TRIO program. 

“We’re just really excited to continue to provide these services for our students,” Cunningham said Thursday. “They’ve told us over and over again (about) how important the relationships are with the staff members that they work with in the program, so it’s exciting to know that we have a program that our students have told us is important to them and that we’re able to continue giving it to them.”

Since it was established at Thomas in 2015, the TRIO program has served about 140 students per year.

Earlier this month, Kennebec County Community College received a $1.7 million grant that will also allow its TRIO program to continue for another five years.

Cunningham and officials at KVCC agree helping students as they progress toward graduation is a crucial part of the TRIO program.

“We’ve had a grant since 1993 here at the college, and we’ve had the same mission,” Karen Normandin, KVCC’s dean of student affairs and enrollment, said Aug. 18. “That is the completion of a degree, the transfer to a four-year institution, the persistence from one semester to the next for the students.”

Cunningham agreed.

“We know that graduation is really the game changer for these students,” Cunningham said. “Our students break barriers. They push boulders up hill every single day to get to where they are. So having this ongoing consistency in their lives, and having a way to guide them through something unfamiliar, is absolutely critical.”

To continue receiving funding for the TRIO program, schools must prove its services are effective for students.

Students in Thomas’ TRIO program have a 52% graduation rate, according to Cunningham.

“We are proud of that rate because it means our first-generation students and students from modest-income families are graduating at a rate in keeping with the national average for four-year graduation,” Cunningham said. “They work hard to be in college, and we know the project is working hard with them when we see these kinds of outcomes.”

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