Marrion Ladd was going nowhere. She had been stuck in a series of dead-end jobs after high school with no plans for the future.

Returning to college was an option, but she had obstacles to overcome – money was tight, and she had a nagging mental block about returning to school.

Marrion is now on a path to a bright future full of promise and hope, thanks to a new success initiative at Southern Maine Community College called Path to Graduation. A first-year student at SMCC, Marrion plans to continue her education after earning her degree and become a dental hygienist.

Path to Graduation, or P2G, is made possible through a three-year, $500,000 grant from KeyBank. The program provides students with support, structure and incentives, including a dedicated adviser, to guide them to college completion and their associate degree in two years.

The needs of college students are growing. So is the demand for highly skilled workers. State funding for higher education has remained flat, and SMCC continues to offer the lowest tuition and fees in New England, in keeping with its mission of access.

KeyBank is taking a leadership role in investing in higher education. It’s providing SMCC and our students with the resources needed to ensure that access leads to success.

KeyBank’s investment supports success through real in-person connections, providing an advocate, supporter and navigator for students of all types, in all fields. It is an investment that will pay dividends in perpetuity to our community and to all who are touched by it.

Just ask Marrion Ladd, who’s grateful she’s part of the P2G program and full of confidence about her future.

“I was just going from one low-paying job to another and I realized I wasn’t going anywhere, in my career or in general,” Marrion says.

Participating P2G students are assigned dedicated success coaches who work with them not just on academic skills, but also on life skills such as career planning, financial literacy and personal resilience. The coaches are intensive advisers whose job is to help students overcome barriers that may stand in the way between them and graduation.

SMCC is donating scholarship funds as incentives to motivate students to enroll in the program and continue from semester to semester until they graduate in two years. From there, students will go on to successful jobs in the workplace or to four-year colleges and universities to continue their education.

These students know that KeyBank believes in them and sees them as a worthy and important investment. This gift is invaluable.

Our students live in a complex world with many potential stumbling blocks. They must work to make ends meet, manage their homes and their families and still find time to study, to learn and to engage.

Some have been out of school a long time, and others are inexperienced and unprepared for college-level work. All must grapple with the financial resources needed to stay in school, and the self-discipline and time-management skills needed to succeed.

Some are single parents, and large numbers are the first in their family to attend college. There’s a constant challenge finding time and the right balance juggling the responsibilities of school, employment, family and self.

As a result, too many of our students are falling short of completing their education. In recent years, about 55 percent of SMCC’s full-time matriculated students – those seeking to earn a degree or a certificate – return for their second year of coursework, and about 29 percent eventually graduate.

Although these rates are close to the national average for community college students, they still mean that far too many of our students are not achieving their goal of a college degree.

Increasing these statistics requires investing in our students and providing them with hands-on guidance. We must do more than simply get students into college; we must ensure that they complete their education.

The combination of added direction and funding can make the difference between success and failure. Research shows that students have a strong desire for well-informed and accessible guidance and advising to help them along the way.

KeyBank is making a difference in the lives of the nearly 90 SMCC students participating in the P2G program this year. The number will grow to more than 500 students in the next three years. We hope other partners, and the state of Maine, will follow KeyBank’s lead.

Providing the right tools to help college students succeed in their journey isn’t a luxury. It’s an essential that’s worth investing in.

— Special to the Press Herald