Developing comprehensive support services

College access doesn’t equal college success. For many low-income students, there are various tripping points along the way that can cause them to stumble and drop out — and they’re not necessarily on the academic side.

Over the past three years, a group of 19 community colleges in four states has been testing various strategies to keep such students in school, from offering guidance on managing their personal finances and providing referrals for basic needs such as housing, to academic and career coaching.

With $12.5 million from six major national foundations, the colleges participating in the Working Students Success Network (WSSN) — which collaborated with the community college reform group Achieving the Dream — focused on designing integrated student services rather than a series of single, one-time services.

The new study found the colleges made significant strides in:

  • Expanding services in areas where they previously offered limited support, such as financial literacy
  • Providing more intensive support to students with the greatest need, including adults in basic education programs, students using welfare services, and those in workforce education or training programs
  • Engaging outside partners such as community-based organizations, businesses and public agencies

Game changers

The report zeroed in on two promising practices that were especially effective: one-on-one coaching, which the report said was widely seen as a “game changer,” especially for student from families with little or no experience with postsecondary education; and creating a one-stop hub on campus where students can go to for various wraparound services. A high-profile hub also helps to maintain awareness of student poverty among students, faculty, staff and the community.

Participating colleges created various “low touch” and “high touch” services, which ranged from providing emergency financial aid and transportation assistance, to mandatory financial aid counseling and applying for public benefits. Food pantries were one of the most widespread new services implemented by the colleges, the report said.

But it was the more experienced colleges that combined wraparound services to better address students’ basic needs and improve their financial stability. They were able to integrate the delivery of services into existing functions and activities at the college.

“These colleges used student success courses, orientations and campus events to raise awareness and knowledge about the importance of these new resources to address students’ basic needs and to improve their financial stability,” the report said.

Overcoming challenges

Leaders at the participating colleges reported that resources such as money, personnel, expertise and time to carry out the work was challenging, especially within the three-year timeframe. Another challenge was retaining buy-in and engagement of faculty.

But the strides the participating colleges made with their limited resources illustrates that innovative colleges with strong leadership and faculty engagement can leverage resources and integrate the services, said Karen Stout, president and CEO of Achieving the Dream and a former community college president.

“It requires a shift in thinking and strategy,” she said.

The system approach to student services through WSSN aligns well with Achieving the Dream’s work on improving student success through planning and advising and changing college culture, Stout said. Common components in both efforts include committed leadership and broad engagement from college faculty, staff and community.

“It’s intentional economies of scale,” she said.

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CCDaily is published by the American Association of Community Colleges.