A new report from the Working Students Success Network (WSSN) describes some of the barriers that low-income students face and identifies practices that can make a significant impact on student success.
“Many of our students live on the edge,” said Dr. Scott Ralls, president of Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) and former president of the 58-college North Carolina Community College System.
“They turn to community colleges, but they struggle with financial insecurity issues that range from housing and transportation to food,” he added. “In many cases, regardless of what we do in terms of other types of efforts, such as program pathways and counseling services, students can be a car breakdown away from dropping out or stopping out. When they stop out, they often don’t come back.”
WSSN is a consortium of 19 community colleges in Arkansas, California, Virginia and Washington that was launched in 2014 by a group of philanthropic organizations. The goal of the consortium is to address the broad financial issues of low-income students, take a holistic approach and try to find new and comprehensive ways to advance retention and student success. These colleges are working with Achieving the Dream (ATD), a national college reform organization.
“We’re trying to raise the awareness of these kinds of challenges and help colleges come up with strategies where they can meet some of these needs, which will give those students a better shot at retaining and succeeding at college,” says Carol Lincoln, senior vice president of ATD.
For the report released Monday, WSSN hired DVP-Praxis to conduct a study focused on documenting services its colleges have designed and delivered to students to help address basic needs and improve financial stability, as well as assessing the implementation. Data was collected from October 2015 to June 2017.
Some major issues that face low-income students are transportation, food and housing security. Simple, consistent services such as giving bus passes, having a food pantry, helping students apply for public benefits and providing child care can make the difference between a student succeeding or dropping out.
One-on-one personalized assistance in discussing a range of issues related to a student’s basic needs makes identifying and effectively addressing these issues much more manageable.
Lincoln noted that some of the WSSN colleges have been doing different kinds of assessments when students first enter to identify their needs beyond financial aid. “It’s not just solving one problem,” said Lincoln. “How can we do a better job so students can piece together the kind of financial security they need?”
Ralls said 15 percent of NOVA students have experienced homelessness over the past year. Details such as those outlined in WSSN’s report have been built into NOVA’s new strategic plan.
NOVA, with approximately 75,000 degree students, has food pantries on its six campuses. Sometimes the scale of students’ needs exceed available institutional resources. Rather than thinking of each small initiative, Ralls said, WSSN has helped NOVA focus on long-term, systematic strategies.
“Having it embedded within your fundamental student support systems,” Ralls said. “‘Single stop’ is a good example that provides that systematic type of capability. Reaching the students at the point of need.”
Single stop refers to the report’s suggestion that campuses have a centralized location where students’ basic needs and financial insecurities can be addressed. A campus hub gives the opportunity to bundle services provided by college staff and external partners. It’s visible for the campus and the community and creates a positive environment where administrators, faculty, staff and students work together to overcome the struggles faced by low-income students.
With costs a factor for many colleges, Ralls says administration needs to aggressively seek external resources and relationships within the community.
“It’s not just about providing immediate aid as needed,” Ralls said. “One of the things we’ve tried to be very deliberate about is the financial literacy. … Help students plan in ways that will alleviate future emergencies. That’s also where connections with community resources come in — work through systems that allow students to tap into resources where they need it that will prevent that emergency.”
After addressing income supports for students through available public benefits and other resources, students that are part of the WSSN initiative receive information, coaching and training about budgeting and informed financial decisions, financial aid and money management. They learn the basics of banking, such as checking accounts and responsible use of credit cards.
The report highlights how the participating institutions have made strides in their programs. Committed leadership is key. Making the programs work with limited institutional resources means being creative, persistent and effective in forging community partnerships. For example, Lincoln said, this includes organizations that can provide child care support or transportation assistance.
“It’s looking at this in a comprehensive, holistic way,” said Lincoln. “Being more intentional in thoroughly exploring what students need to stay in school. That’s the big change we’re after — finding the partnerships and the resources that can meet those needs.
“You can’t get to completion without retention.”
Lincoln said colleges need to investigate and tap into organizations and businesses in the community that want to see adults succeed and become productive members of the local economy. Have conversations about mutual goals for the community.
Holistic student support and solutions will be a major theme of ATD’s dream institute next week in Nashville. With more than 2,000 higher education leaders expected, this report and other data from the WSSN initiative will be featured.