Things were going well for Job Asiimwe as he approached his final semester at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston last winter. Then a toothache almost derailed his college career.
Asiimwe, an immigrant from Uganda who’s been on his own since age 19, was close to graduating. He had been accepted to a bachelor’s degree program at a college in Vermont and his plan to become a lawyer seemed within reach — until something in his mouth began to throb.
He needed a crown on a tooth that had begun to decay. But the procedure cost $2,000, more than he earned in a month, and it wasn’t covered by insurance. As close as he was to graduation, he considered abandoning his studies so he could earn the money.
Asiimwe was on the verge of becoming one of the surprisingly large number of U.S. college and university students who fail to earn two-year associate degrees within even three years, or four-year bachelor’s degrees within six.
"I don’t think many people know how sometimes just one medical event could affect your life," said Asiimwe, now 22.
Asiimwe was fortunate. Bunker Hill stepped in and paid for the crown with funds from a pool of foundation money. He finished the semester, graduated in June, and has begun work on his bachelor’s degree.
"I’ve seen other students drop out, not because they can’t afford tuition, but they can’t afford the other costs of coming to college: rent, health insurance, transportation," Asiimwe said. "I was lucky."
More U.S. colleges and universities are recognizing that unexpected crises unrelated to academics are pushing people to drop out, especially as the economy stagnates. Under intense pressure from parents, taxpayers and politicians to improve abysmal graduation rates, the colleges are assuming a new role in helping students over the bumps; they’re also keeping a close eye on students and monitoring social media to detect early signs of trouble.
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