For low-income students, attending—and paying for—a four-year college can be far out of reach. But in an increasingly computerized workplace, most careers that pay a decent wage require more than a high school education. Professional certifications or technical credentials are prerequisites for many living wage jobs. Offering opportunities to receive career-specific training and earn credentials, community colleges serve as an avenue to skilled jobs for students who may not be in the right circumstances to attend a four-year college and who do not need a four-year degree to earn a decent living.
Challenges for Low-Income Students
But even with this specialized educational assistance, there are challenges. Community college students are some of the most vulnerable to the kinds of financial difficulties that can keep them from completing their studies and improving their chances at getting decent jobs. Low-income students and minority undergraduate students are disproportionately enrolled in the community college sector. They are less likely to apply for financial aid and more likely to juggle classes with full- or part-time jobs. Financial woes can also keep students from completing their coursework and can leave them burdened with debt when they finish. This can have long-term impacts on their financial stability, even if they secure well-paying jobs.
Bringing Financial Opportunity Centers to Campus
Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) supports a network of centers nationwide that help families and individuals improve their financial well-being. These Financial Opportunity Centers (FOC) offer clients financial coaching, including low-cost financial products, income supports access (e.g., public benefits), digital skills training and employment and career counseling. In 2014, LISC began working with City Colleges of Chicago to test how to bring this successful model to community colleges. This entailed adding a financial coaching and income supports piece to the career counseling and financial aid guidance that community colleges typically provide.
A hallmark of LISC’s FOC model is a technique known as “bundling,” in which the FOC offers multiple, coordinated services to clients. Bundling has proven to be more effective than offering individual services and it is being carried over into the community college FOCs as well. In a community college setting, this could mean offering a student credit counseling and assistance with financial aid alongside employment counseling. Says LISC Director of Financial Opportunities Jennifer McClain, “It is very beneficial to connect students to these wraparound services that a financial aid officer will not provide. There is an added benefit to the students [in that helping them manage their financial challenges] allows them to stay focused on their studies.”
There are now two sites in LISC’s Chicago FOC network that are based in community colleges and they look quite distinct. One site is based Kennedy-King College in Englewood, but is run by a nonprofit, Metropolitan Family Services. That center sees community college students, but also serves neighborhood residents unaffiliated with the school. Metropolitan Family Services has a long history in the community and was already working with Kennedy-King to provide workforce development services, helping students find part-time jobs while in school. With a strong service provider on board, LISC approached the college about working together. Learn more about this collaboration.
The other site is Truman College, where the college itself elected to run the FOC and provide services to its students. An internal City Colleges of Chicago report looking back at its experience at Truman found the program faced some obstacles, but was successful overall in helping students address financial barriers to college completion.
Lessons from Truman Community College
The community college setting can pose challenges to the bundling strategy that are different from those found in a nonprofit social service agency. At Truman Community College, the program began with a financial coach based in the financial aid office and an income support coach based in the wellness center. In its own assessment of the program, City Colleges acknowledged the need for more centralization moving forward, noting that the work at Truman had evolved toward centralization as the program went on.
Despite a few early growing pains, the City Colleges report found cause for considerable optimism in students’ embrace of the services, the successes seen so far, and the positive data from similar programs nationwide.
The Role of Public Benefits
One of those data sources the City Colleges found inspiring was the Benefits Access for College Completion (BACC) demonstration. This collaborative investment by several philanthropies intended to show that supporting students through public human services programs could help them to stay in college until they completed their courses of study. The collaboration originated with the understanding that financial aid, while necessary, was not sufficient without other forms of support.
During the demonstration, participating colleges worked to identify students in need and connect them with benefits such as food stamps, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF, which offers financial and childcare assistance) and Medicaid. The idea was that these benefits would help students have more stability and security in their lives outside the classroom, freeing them to focus on completing their coursework and staying in school. Seven community colleges in a variety of settings took part in the demonstration.
The final evaluation report, Public Benefits and Community Colleges: Lessons from Benefits Access for College Completion Evaluation, found that there was a positive correlation between benefits access and continued enrollment. Evaluators determined that the students who received TANF or SNAP benefits were enrolled for more terms at the college and earned slightly more credits than a similar comparison group. However, students who received two or more public benefits (e.g., both SNAP and TANF childcare assistance) showed statistically significant increases in the number of terms enrolled, credits earned and completion rate. This outcome tracks with what LISC already knows about the importance of bundling services in its FOCs.
Room for Growth
The City Colleges report and the BACC evaluation came to some similar conclusions about what factors are needed for FOC services to support the “college completion agenda” effectively: