Improving State Policies for Community College Students: Virginia’s Experience

The odds of improving outcomes for community college students can increase depending on individual colleges’ policies and practices but also the presence or absence of supportive state policies. The non-academic roadblocks to completion that often appear in the form of food insecurity, poor child care options, and financial instability can be tackled through changes colleges can choose to make. For instance, Achieving the Dream’s Working Students Success Network (WSSN) initiative guided colleges in Washington, California, Arkansas, and Virginia to help their low-income students persist and complete their studies by designing and offering comprehensive, integrated services across three critical pillars affecting student success—education and employment advancement, income and work supports, and financial services and asset building. Implementing this approach required the difficult work of bringing about cultural change on every WSSN college campus.

To complement and strengthen changes at the institutional level, ATD and the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), our policy partner, worked with the four WSSN states and colleges to begin advocating for more supportive policies in their states. Encouraging the development of positive state policies is an even more complex undertaking than leading change at a single college. Policies determined at the state level on a number of issues including postsecondary budgets, financial aid access, childcare subsidy eligibility, and transportation and housing assistance all play critical roles in advancing or slowing student success. The policy-focused efforts that ATD, CLASP and the WSSN states undertook required each state to understand its particular policy context and then develop specific advocacy strategies aimed at changing the  policies so they would do more to support students.

In Virginia, the Virginia Community College System (VCCS) determined that its overarching goal in the policy component of its WSSN work would be building college leaders’ capacity to execute a strategy of promoting legislative and administrative policies that would support low-income working students over the short- and long-term. The state identified policy priorities in the areas of education and employment advancement and income and work supports, including increasing access to state financial aid, expanding colleges’ adoption of policies that would enable use of the federal Ability-to-Benefit provision, and expanding the definition of and eligibility for career-focused training in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), to name a few. Advancing this agenda was a tall order, requiring college leaders to develop a deep knowledge of the state’s policy levers, budget and political climate, and stakeholder and system relationships.

In the course of pursuing the agenda, some important lessons emerged:


  • Policy success takes more than simply effective advocacy

  • For long-term policy strategy, prepare for evolution in policy and budget cycles

  • Don't underestimate the learning curve involved with working on something new

Find out more about Virginia, Washington, Arkansas, and California’s state policy experiences and lessons here.

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