New study explores how 19 colleges in 4 states are striving to put financially strapped students on stable financial ground to help them succeed in college—and beyond

Report examines implementation of initiative that is expanding and better targeting and customizing student service. Report says that making college-wide changes, increasing faculty engagement are key hurdles.

SILVER SPRING, MD—February 9, 2017—At a time when many low-income students can’t earn enough money to pay their way through college and face severe economic instability, a group of community colleges are combining educational, career and financial management strategies to help these students stay in school and complete their postsecondary educational goals. Rather than seeking solutions to single problems, the colleges are looking comprehensively at student needs—both academic and nonacademic--and making deep, substantive changes in what they do to address them.

A new study conducted by the research organization DVP-Praxis and supported by five major national foundations provides a clear look at institutions that are part of the Working Students Success Network (WSSN). Nineteen participating colleges in four states (AR, CA, WA, VA) (See attached list) are working with the national college reform organization Achieving the Dream (ATD) to give tens of thousands of low-income students the best possible chance to succeed in college and beyond.

WSSN offers a cohesive suite of services that help students address barriers to student success, and strengthen academic and job skills and opportunities leading to careers that pay a living wage and to the financial stability of students and their families. Specifically, WSSN provides students access to income supports by tapping into available public benefits and other resources that address basic needs and financial insecurities. Students receive information, coaching, and training to make informed financial decisions about budgeting, financial aid, and debt and money management, as well as to learn about banking services such as checking and savings accounts, and credit cards.

“The WSSN initiative has served as a catalyst for campuses to re-imagine how to organize and deliver services in a student-centered way, meeting their students where they are and creating an institutional culture in which the whole campus contributes,” says Dr. Karen A. Stout, president and CEO of Achieving the Dream. “If the United States is going to meet its future workforce needs, we need to improve the ability of our institutions to retain and graduate a greater percentage of students who enroll. Critical to that mission will be to help community colleges work with students who have the greatest challenges to overcome as they pursue a college credential.”

“The research provides some lessons on how colleges can advance the student success movement to address academic and financial security needs,” says Rosa Maria Casteneda, senior associate for family economic success at the Annie Casey Foundation, which funded the $12.5 million initiative along with the W.K. Kellogg, Kresge, Lumina and MetLife Foundations, with seed funding provided by the Bank of America Charitable Foundation. ”The study points the way to more effective implementation that can be further institutionalized within these colleges and spread to other institutions that need to learn how to develop system-wide approaches to serve large numbers of students.”

Key Findings
The report notes that in the initial three years, participating institutions have made particular strides in:
• Expanding services in areas where they had previously offered limited support, including income and work supports, financial literacy, and asset building;
• Targeting more intensive and customized support to the students with the greatest need, including adults in basic education programs, students on public assistance, those in workforce education or training programs, and those seeking GEDs to transition into college;
• Engaging outside partners—community-based organizations, businesses, and public human services agencies; and
• Integrating multiple services to meet students’ basic needs and improve their financial security, including public benefits information, financial literacy, and career and employment services.

Promising Practices
The DVP-Praxis report identified key strategies undertaken by WSSN colleges, including two promising approaches for colleges that want to provide comprehensive and integrated services that address a broad spectrum of students’ basic needs and can improve their financial stability:
• One-on-one, personalized assistance (e.g., coaching) with multiple areas and issues related to students’ basic needs and financial stability. High-touch, personalized coaching and the intensive relationships between coaches and students were widely seen by faculty, staff, and administrators as a “game changer” for addressing the complex circumstances facing students. This was especially important for students who had little or no prior experience or familiarity with postsecondary education.
• A centralized location where students’ basic needs and financial insecurities can be addressed.   A centralized one-stop shop or “hub” to provide services in a centralized location helps colleges integrate and bundle services for students. Typically the services are provided by college staff and partners and create a highly visible symbol of how the college is daily addressing the struggles faced by low-income students.

The study, which summarizes findings across three waves of data collection conducted from October 2015 to June 2017, including telephone interviews with 19 colleges and site visits to a subset of eight colleges, also identified exemplar institutions, common challenges, and strategies that have helped institutions engage in the cultural change required to provide comprehensive supports in new ways.

“Meeting the complex needs of today’s college students requires that colleges make strategic decisions about how to best allocate and organize resources and combine a wide array of student support services in a seamless manner, delivering them in a way that is seen as part of what every student needs and the college routinely does,” says Derek Price, owner and principal of DVP-Praxis and the report’s lead author. “The colleges we visited that did this well across the institution exhibited strong, committed senior leadership and continuity of project leadership; a willingness to work across departments and divisions; and a commitment to intentionally engage faculty members. Instructors were encouraged to embrace comprehensive changes in student support services as part of the institution’s overall efforts to improve academic outcomes.”

Integrating WSSN into the Daily Work of the Institution
The study included an in-depth look at eight of the participating colleges and found that five of the eight community colleges—Big Bend, Clark, and Highline in Washington, North Arkansas, and Patrick Henry in Virginia—delivered integrated student services and fostered culture change affecting equity and the de-stigmatization of poverty. These institutions have already made WSSN services and strategies part of their daily work moving forward. These colleges point the way to how college services can be combined as a “system of supports” rather than as a series of single, one-time services, and demonstrate how to integrate the services into existing institutional functions and activities.

Facilitating Factors
The report identified key factors that enabled institutions to implement the WSSN initiative with rigor and embed it in their daily work. The mature institutions:
• Demonstrated committed leadership and shared responsibilities across the institution;
• Broke down silos between student service programs and key departments of the university;
• Developed widespread “buy-in” to an integrated model of service delivery and deeper understanding of the conditions of poverty that affect their students. They extended the buy-in by elevating key services like food banks as symbolic reminders of the institution’s commitment to its students’ financial stability; and
• Broadened engagement with and collaboration among external partners.

Key Challenges
In addition, the report identified three key challenges that can affect the sustainability of the effort:
• Limited resources and capacity to make system-level changes to college policies, practices, and procedures that address students’ basic needs and financial stability;
• Ensuring better connections between those charged with implementation of WSSN services such as student services and workforce development and those with authority over academic and curricular decisions; and
• The need for ongoing and sustained engagement of faculty to generate cultural responsiveness to student poverty, and thereby build support and buy-in for support services that address the wide array of issues their students face.
In the near future, funders will release a quantitative study identifying changes in student persistence and completion in the immediate term, although the full impact may not be seen for a few more years.

Achieving the Dream (ATD) leads a growing network of more than 220 community colleges committed to helping their students, particularly low-income students and students of color, achieve their goals for academic success, personal growth, and economic opportunity. ATD is making progress in closing academic achievement gaps and accelerating student success through a unique change process that builds each college’s institutional capacities in seven essential areas. ATD, along with more than 100 experienced coaches and advisors, works closely with Network colleges in 40 states and the District of Columbia to reach more than 4 million community college students.

Follow us on Twitter @achievethedream

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