By Jon Marcus

Things were going well for Job Asiimwe as he approached his final semester at Bunker Hill Community College. Then a toothache in December almost derailed his college career An immigrant from Uganda who’s been on his own since age 19, Asiimwe was finally close to graduating. He had been accepted to a bachelor’s-degree program at a college in Vermont. His plan to become a lawyer seemed within reach—until something in his mouth began to throb.

Asiimwe, needed a crown on a tooth that had begun to decay. But the procedure cost $2,000, more than he earned in a month to pay for food, rent and tuition, and it wasn’t covered by his insurance. Close to graduation or not, he considered abandoning his studies so he could somehow earn the money.

Asiimwe was on the verge of becoming one of the nearly two thirds of American community college students who fail to earn two-year associate degrees within even three years, or nearly half who don’t receive a 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.

Asiimwe, who is now 22, 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 now begun 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 and more American colleges and universities are recognizing that unexpected crises not related to academic problems are pushing people to drop out, especially as the economy stagnates. And, under intense pressure from parents, taxpayers, and politicians to improve graduation rates, they’re not only assuming a new role in helping their students over the bumps—they’re keeping a close eye on students, and even monitoring social media, to detect early signs of trouble.

“Our students are not sheltered from the economic problems of the country,” said Linda Byrd-Johnson, director of the federal TRIO programsthat help low-income, first-generation, and disabled college students. “These kids are just like everybody else. Some of them are struggling to make ends meet.”

The Dreamkeepers program that helped Asiimwe—underwritten by several foundations —assists low-income students facing personal emergencies that could derail their graduation plans. Payouts average $500 but can be as small as $11 for a bus pass.

Many such interventions have not been around long enough to allow for measuring their success. But some have. A case-management system at Cedar Valley College near Dallas has decreased the dropout rate there for students considered at risk from 53 percent to 40 percent. A program started last fall to monitor and support faltering students at Michigan Technological University, in the state’s Upper Peninsula, reduced the number who were on the brink of leaving by 2 percent, according to the university. And Scholarship America , which runs Dreamkeepers, reports that the proportion of students who stay in school from one semester to the next after getting help from this initiative is 72 percent, compared to 50 percent for students who don’t receive such help.

“Finances are the number one reason students drop out. It’s not just school finances—it’s life finances,” said Lauren Segal, president and CEO of Scholarship America. “It’s the day-to-day life experiences that are the hurdles students have to get over. And those don’t have to be big things. They can be small things—say, their daycare goes up $100 a month.”

The Obama administration has called for nearly doubling the number of community-college graduates by 2020 and restoring the United States to first in the world in the proportion of the population aged 25 to 34 with postsecondary degrees. It’s now 15th.

But about a third of students entering college today are the first in their families to go to college, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, and a quarter are both first generation and low income. “A lot of the issues that [they] have are life issues, not academic issues,” said Ingrid Washington, vice president of student affairs at Gateway Community and Technical College near Cincinnati.

Gateway loans laptops to students who can’t afford them, and accepts donated clothes for them to wear to job interviews or to work.

“They’re so close to the edge, and that’s how they live every day,” Washington said. “Educators used to say, leave your issues at the door. You can’t do that any more.”

At Mt. Hood Community College near Portland, Ore., employees have found students sleeping in campus restrooms or in their cars in the parking lot because they were evicted from their apartments. More than half work full or part time. Fewer than 22 percent graduate within three years.

“I don’t think the general public gets it,” said Robert Cox, Mt. Hood’s dean of student services. “These are people who are on the fringe. They’re really just trying to get through till they get paid.” And yet, with other public services cut, “There aren’t many other places left for students to turn.”

Mt. Hood lets students check out books, laptops and calculators if they can’t afford them, runs a food pantry, and provides bus passes for students in emergencies. The cost of one-way bus fare on the local transit system is $2.40.

“Even that could be a deal-breaker for many of these students,” Cox said. “When you have first-generation students who have test anxiety and all kinds of other issues, the last thing they need is to have to deal with not having bus fare to get to their class.”

That was confirmed in a study sby researchers at Michigan State University, which found that minor problems can start a chain of events resulting in students dropping out.

“These small things—just simply having the bus fare, or an unexpected bad grade, or being depressed—are shocks that prompt students to think about quitting,” said Tim Pleskac, a Michigan State psychology professor who directed the study.

This is a particular problem for public universities and colleges, as states including Ohio, Indiana, Tennessee, Texas, Arkansas, and Washington are beginning to fund them based not only on how many students they enroll, but on how many end up earning degrees.

But not all students are comfortable confessing that they can’t afford to ride the bus. So some universities and advocacy groups are taking the next step by developing sophisticated early-warning systems to track them individually and intervene at the first sign of a problem, often in response to reports from faculty or campus police about repeat absences or odd behavior, or from messages they monitor on social media.

Chris Rochow, a student at Michigan Tech, was contacted by a dean when his GPA fell to 1.4 in his first semester at the school. He was homesick, missed his girlfriend, and was intimidated by lecture classes half the size of his entire high school. Administrators enrolled him in a study-skills course.

If they hadn’t, “I definitely don’t think I would be here,” said Rochow, now a sophomore. “I thought, ‘Oh, wow, now they’re watching me.’ ”

At Whittier College in southern California, it took three calls from the dean of freshmen before Sean Stribley reluctantly agreed to meet. He, too, had low grades—because he was dyslexic, as it turned out. Administrators arranged for him to use audio books.

It might sound like coddling, said Jeanne Ortiz, Whittier’s dean of students. “But it’s also accountability, and it’s support. We have to walk the fine line between holding students accountable for the choices that they make and their behavior but also recognizing that it doesn’t take much at all—an illness or a car accident—to put them over the edge.”

Jon Marcus is the U.S. correspondent for the Times (U.K.) Higher Education magazine, and has also written about higher education for the Washington Post, New York Times, and Boston Globe Magazine.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!