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Offering a helping hand to students in need


​The Family Economic Security Program at Norwalk Community College has helped a number of students in financial need through services to help them succeed.

Photo: Norwalk Community College

See video about the program at the end of this article.

​Stacy Ann Reid came to Norwalk Community College (NCC) in Connecticut after she had her son four years ago. She’d tried college before, but wasn’t ready. With two children to care for, though, and a bank teller job that wasn’t going anywhere, she knew she needed a college degree.

Reid wasn’t sure what she wanted to study or how she would manage school, a family and a job. She saw a flier for NCC’s Family Economic Security Program (FESP) in a classroom and immediately contacted the college about it. Reid became part of a small cohort of women who received personalized academic, financial and career coaching, as well as scholarship funds.

She was also given a support system—a group of people who were proud of her and “a group of women I didn’t want to let down,” Reid said. 

Closing the gap

NCC began FESP nearly five years ago with the help of the Fairfield County Community Foundation’s Fund for Women and Girls and the NCC Foundation. It’s one of 15 community college programs adapted from the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Centers for Working Families model, which assists low-income families with gaining financial security.

FESP focuses specifically on helping female heads of households. For single parents, the income needed to support a family often doesn’t match the income received.  A way to close that income gap is through further education.

Helping single mothers succeed in college

“Education is a way to address the self-sufficiency gap,” said Kristina Testa-Buzzee, FESP director.

It’s also a research opportunity for NCC. The stories and data received will “help inform NCC and community colleges nationally” about how to support female heads of households, said Pamela Edington, dean of academic affairs.

Two-tier approach

The college has taken a two-tier approach. Each year, 20 single mothers are identified to join a cohort, like the group Reid was in. The group attends an annual mandatory retreat and meets with coaches regularly to make sure they’re on track.

NCC also “cast a wider net” to offer services to other student parents, Testa-Buzzee said. Any student parent can receive extra educational assistance and financial literacy coaching. The college has reached about 800 students through these services.

“We really thought from the beginning about how this program could influence a much larger audience,” Edington said.

Broader focus

In California, the audience for Skyline College’s SparkPoint Center is the entire community. The center serves all county residents who fall below the self-sufficiency standard, including students.

Child care remains a barrier for many student parents

Financial coaches help with budgeting, credit repair, savings goals, debt reduction and improved income. There’s also a scholarship program, job coaching and a food pantry.

The college’s center is one of 10 centers in the community, but the only one on a community college campus. The program is part of a regional initiative to reduce poverty by half in the San Francisco Bay Area by 2020 and, like NCC’s Family Economic Security Program, is based on the Centers for Working Families model.

The program landed at Skyline because the college’s leadership was closely watching the effects of the recession on the community. Though San Mateo County is one of the most affluent counties in the state, 22,000 households couldn’t make ends meet.

“Economic marginalization was impacting how students connect to the college and succeed once they’re here,” said William Watson, SparkPoint director.

The college partnered with the United Way of the Bay Area and has several external funders, including the Center for Law and Social Policy and the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The center opened in 2010.

Getting results

More than 1,900 people have used SparkPoint services this year. About 400 are in financial coaching and over 80 percent of those individuals are already making measurable progress toward their economic goals, according to Watson.

At NCC, results of FESP also have been positive, particularly among the cohort students. Of the 106 students who have participated, 49 are still at NCC, and 43 have graduated with an associate degree. Twenty-nine of those students transferred to a four-year institution, with the help of a transfer scholarship provided by the Fund for Women and Girls. Four have already earned bachelor’s degrees.

Reid completed an associate degree in general studies and is now wrapping up a bachelor’s degree at the University of Connecticut.

“I went to the graduation ceremony (at the university), and I was thinking, ‘I really did it,’” Reid said. Her seven-year-old daughter likes to look at the picture of Reid in her graduation gown.

Reid plans to get a master’s degree in health management.

Making it sustainable

At both colleges, administration recognizes that grant funding may not always be available. NCC’s program is coming to the end of its five-year grant. The director position will be absorbed into the college, which also will hire a financial coach, Edington said. 

Without the SparkPoint Center at Skyline, not only would students and community members be at a disadvantage, but “faculty would be at a loss,” said Watson. Faculty members often refer students to the center. Much consideration has gone into a sustainability strategy.

Over time, the percentage of college funds used to support the program will increase. Many of the services provided by SparkPoint already are core functions of student services. Whether external grant funding remains at the same level or not, the program isn’t going to disappear.

“After three years, it’s as much a part of the college as TRIO, the Disability Resource Center and all institutional programming,” Watson said.

FESP Director Kristina Testa-Buzzee invites students to join the program