Working Students Success Network

The work of the Working Students Success Network has now merged with the work of multiple other ATD learning initiatives to form our new Holistic Student Supports approach. To learn more about how we can support your institution in designing a student support experience that meets student where they are, learn more about our Holistic Student Supports Redesign Coaching program or contact Shauna Davis, Executive Director of Holistic Student Supports at
A growing emphasis on offering guided pathways and creating more student-centric institutions amid declining or flat enrollment has colleges increasingly looking to redesign and integrate holistic student supports so more students can reach their educational and career goals. A holistic student supports approach recognizes that challenges students face outside the classroom can jeopardize their ability to persist and complete their studies without purposeful assistance from their colleges. To be able to offer holistic supports, colleges need help to (1) review their advising and student support model; (2) develop a sustainable and scalable case management model; (3) lead change to generate cross campus buy-in and engagement; and (4) assess and improve technology use.  Learn more here.

Project Description

The national expansion of the Working Students Success Network (WSSN) strategy supported 19 community colleges in four states as they created pathways and provided integrated services that prepare low-income students for jobs with family-sustaining wages. WSSN strategy was developed to help low-income people reach financial stability and move up the economic ladder by promoting an innovative framework that strategically integrates and bundles three distinct but related services:

  1. Education and employment advancement— education, job readiness, training, and placement;
  2. Income and work supports— access to student financial aid, public benefits, tax credits, and free tax assistance; and
  3. Financial services and asset building— financial education and coaching linked to affordable products and services to help families build self-sufficiency, stabilize their finances, and become more economically competitive.

This work is grounded in the belief that achieving a postsecondary credential is the best way to end intergenerational poverty and, thus, the ultimate goal of the community college expansion is to make it easier for low-income students to balance work, family, and education/professional aspirations. The expansion focuses on systems change through college culture and operations in order to support student success and ultimately family economic success. Colleges did this by building upon and integrating the WSSN strategy into existing student-success efforts and workforce focused innovations and best practices. 

Based on the colleges’ efforts, ATD created Integrated Student Support Services in Action: A Guide to Implementing the Working Students Success Network Approach. The guidebook is based on lessons from the WSSN initiative and aims to help colleges design, organize, and implement an integrated student support services approach to better serve low-income students. One universal lesson is the importance of planning that considers how an integrated service model fits with college’s mission, aligns with institutional priorities, identifies who can benefit, and rallies support to bring the whole campus along. This requires strong leadership and college-wide buy-in to support students in a more holistic way.

This effort is supported with funding from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Kresge Foundation, Lumina Foundation, MetLife Foundation, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. 

The community college expansion of the WSSN strategy seeks to demonstrate that embedding the WSSN strategy in college culture and systems can be cost effective and has the potential to bring about institutional change that leads to significant improvement in outcomes for low-income students. The long term goal is to change the way community colleges operate so that low-income students routinely and systematically receive the services that evidence suggests make a difference in whether a student thrives or languishes.  

Assessing Progress: Reports on the WSSN Initiative

To evaluate how well WSSN was implemented and the impact the WSSN approach had at the 19 colleges, funders supported two formal evaluations.

The first, conducted by DVP-Praxis LTD, was a qualitative study focused on (1) documenting the services colleges designed and delivered to students to help address basic needs and improve financial stability, including the integration or bundling of these services; and (2) assessing implementation progress from the exploration and design stage, to early and mature implementation, and eventually to institutionalization and sustainability. 

The second, conducted by Mathematica Policy Research (MPR), was a quantitative study designed to examine (1) who was served through the WSSN strategy during the grant period; (2) what types of services participants received; and (3) the outcomes for WSSN participants. 

The two evaluations reported the following findings.

Findings on Student Characteristics and Experience

  • Relative to their student bodies, the majority of colleges served larger shares of blacks, Hispanics, or Pell grant recipients, in line with the strategy’s focus on low-income students and students of color.
  • One-third of participants received services in multiple pillars, and one-third received intensive one-on-one services; 17 percent received both.
  • Receiving at least one intensive, one-on-one service was associated with improved persistence and credential completion. Receipt of services across two or more pillars was associated with increased persistence but decreased completion.

Promising Practices

  • Obtaining commitment from executive leaders and having a stable, distributed leadership network with responsibility and accountability for implementation. Some senior staff, such as vice presidents of student services, engaged their deans and directors as well as counterparts in academic affairs to move the effort forward and build buy-in and support.
  • Integrating services that break down silos between student services programs and academic departments. Collaborations among programs and departments helped eliminate redundant services, embed new ones into existing programs, and in some cases, facilitate centralization of student services.
  • Ensuring widespread, collective buy-in and support for the college to provide one-on-one coaching to address students’ basic needs and improve their financial stability. Most administrators, faculty, and staff concurred that providing students a personal contact who could provide holistic supports, and be aware of the variety of barriers that students experiencing poverty fact, furthered their mission.
  • Building cultural responsiveness to the needs of students in poverty. Professional development and campus events promoted awareness and reflection about the stigma of poverty, and heightened collective responsibility for student success.
  • Establishing service centers that increase visibility of and commitment to addressing student poverty and educational success. Service “hubs” provided a one-stop, on-campus location for a variety of internal and external resources, easily accessed students, to address financial and other basic needs. In addition, some colleges created food pantries, which highlighted their institution’s commitment to addressing students’ basic needs and empathy to carry culture change forward.
  • Broadening engagement and collaboration with external partners. Community organizations, public agencies, and nonprofits were important for sharing resources and helping colleges deliver services.



Project BRIEFS


ATD recently released the report, Addressing Food Insecurity on Campus: Establishing Food Pantries at Community Colleges and Connecting Students to Wider Services, a practical guide drawn from the experiences of colleges participating in WSSN. These colleges offer integrated support services, often including food pantries, that help low-income students persist in their studies and prepare for jobs with family-sustaining wages.

Addressing Food Insecurity on Campus is intended to provide insights and strategies for establishing a food pantry as a first step toward meeting an immediate need. The report also describes the opportunity to weave the work of establishing and running a food pantry into a broader set of integrated support services that systematically address multiple needs and help build longer-term financial stability and academic success.

Click here to read the report.

As part of the financial services and asset building strategy, WSSN sought to test strategies that can improve the financial capability of large numbers of community college students. With input from behavioral economists, community college staff, and financial product and services experts, WSSN identified many of the financial challenges that causes students to suddenly drop out of college. WSSN decided to focus on three specific challenges facing low-income community college students among those that were identified:

  • Students are challenged to manage a limited cash flow that often comes in the form of a lump sum at the beginning of the semester or in early February as part of their tax refunds.
  • Students lack a financial cushion to absorb the shocks of a medical bill or a needed car repair.  The only alternative they may have is to drop out of school in order to increase their work hours.
  • Students pay more for financial services because of either a lack of a credit history or a low credit score.  Because credit scores are now used by employers and landlords, students with poor credit may be rejected for employment or housing.
  • Financial Health and Community College Students and Strategies for Improving Community College Student Financial Health

Consequently, WSSN created a list of potential solutions and developed a framework for prototyping potential interventions to address the aforementioned challenges. The table below illustrates the categories of prototypes colleges are now implementing.

Participating WSSN Colleges and State Partner Organizations






Initiative Files


  • Public perceptions of college students and their needs have not evolved. Likewise, embedded in the minds of policymakers is a traditional picture of higher education’s mission as largely focused on teaching and learning. To some extent, this is true for college staff, as well. As a result, shifting the paradigms around social, economic, and workforce issues is difficult, both at the campus and policy levels. Yet, if we are to achieve the levels of postsecondary and economic success necessary for individual, family, and state prosperity, addressing policy in these areas is critical.

    The WSSN initiative responded to this reality by taking aim at the myriad systemic barriers impeding low income student college completion. WSSN sought to change institutional practices to ensure that more students would succeed and show that state policies can affect whether such innovations take root and expand to scale. State policies on postsecondary budgets, financial aid access, childcare subsidy eligibility, and transportation and housing assistance are critical to student success. That is why the odds of changing outcomes for students partially depend on supportive state policies.

    With this in mind, the WSSN state policy work brought together state agency managers, institutional leaders, state advocates, and national policy experts to develop strategies to effect change in the three key pillars:

    1. Education and employment advancement— education, job readiness, training, and placement;
    2. Income and work supports— access to student financial aid, public benefits, tax credits, and free tax assistance; and
    3. Financial services and asset building— financial education and coaching linked to affordable products and services to help families build self-sufficiency, stabilize their finances, and become more economically competitive.


  • The Working Students Success Network (WSSN) is a consortium of 19 community colleges in Arkansas, California, Virginia, and Washington. This innovative strategy seeks
    to support colleges as they create pathways and provide integrated services to improve students’ academic, employment, and financial stability in the short term, while laying a foundation for long-term economic success. The colleges were charged with addressing low-income students’ widespread needs by offering group-based and more intensive, one-on-one services in three pillars. 

    As this was major expansion of an integrated service delivery approach in community colleges, the goal of the evaluation was to describe how WSSN was implemented and identify outcomes that might be associated with participation. The research revealed factors that may lead to success and tradeoffs colleges may face in meeting students’ needs.

    Resource Files

    wssn_lessons_april_2018.pdf415.11 KB
  • The Working Students Success Network (WSSN), an expansion of the Working Families Success Network into community colleges, represents an innovative, comprehensive strategy for supporting low-income students and students of color. The WSSN strategy brings together and integrates access to a full range of services and supports to help students improve their financial knowledge, budgeting skills and choice of financial products, and develop and implement achievable career plans, putting students on a path to securing marketable postsecondary credentials and achieving economic success. Nineteen community colleges in four states— Arkansas, California, Virginia, and Washington—received financial and implementation support to develop and provide services and to move toward sustainability of the WSSN strategy following the end of the grant period. 

    This report presents the findings of the independent evaluation of the WSSN strategy. The evaluation included an implementation study and an outcomes study, as well as technical assistance to support colleges’ administrative data collection and reporting for the outcomes evaluation. The implementation study was designed to document key aspects of WSSN implementation and measure progress toward sustaining the strategy beyond the grant period.

  • Over a two-year period, six colleges involved in the WSSN initiative received financial support and technical assistance from ATD to identify key financial challenges their students face, develop specific strategies to address those challenges, and provide feedback on lessons learned from the work to be shared with other colleges. The project supplemented the work these and the other WSSN colleges were already engaged in by focusing on specific types of interventions that would not only provide services to students, but also effect positive changes in their financial behaviors.

    Resource Files


    Nationally, about 55% of all students complete a degree or certificate within six years, and this completion rate is much lower for Black and Hispanic students (46% and 38%, respectively); moreover, the completion rates are lower for all students who started in two-year public institutions (39%), and similar to the overall variation by race and ethnicity, lower again for Black and Hispanic students (33% and 26%, respectively).

    Given this reality, the convening initially focused on the typical college student attending under-resourced institutions, representing about 75% of all students (~14 million undergrads), including 8.7 million Pell Grant recipients.8 Participants quickly converged around the critical needs of low-income students as a core framing tool for discussion; this emphasis on low-income students was underscored by the recent report from New America Foundation showing that lower-resourced regional public universities enroll a much higher share of low-income students than state flagship universities do, and even larger shares of students from low-income families attend open-enrollment institutions such as public two-year community colleges.

    This wisdom and advice of participants, as documented by this report, contributes to making credential attainment a stronger reality for all students, including those with substantial financial need.

    Resource Files

  • This new report outlines lessons learned from the Working Students Success Network initiative.  It explores strategies colleges have used—from bundling student services to personalized financial coaching and building external partnerships to offer a broader array of services–that have promise in helping more low-income and working community college students complete degrees and find economic stability.  


    Community college students come to campus with dreams of earning a degree or certificate and getting a job that pays well; they also often come with limited resources and, in many cases, multiple financial obstacles. Recent research has shed light on one particularly pressing challenge that many community college students face: food insecurity.

    A number of recent research studies have shown that food insecurity is one of the most common challenges low-income students face. WSSN colleges saw this firsthand, and over two-thirds of them sought to address it by creating food pantries for their students. Their experiences provide the basis of this brief. It is intended to provide insights and strategies both for establishing a food pantry and for integrating that work with a broader set of community college student support services to systematically address their multiple needs.

    Resource Files

    ATD 2017 Food Insecurity Brief 503.19 KB
  • As part of the financial services and asset building strategy, WSSN sought to test strategies that can improve the financial capability of large numbers of community college students. With input from behavioral economists, community college staff, and financial product and services experts, WSSN identified many of the financial challenges that causes students to suddenly drop out of college. WSSN decided to focus on three specific challenges facing low-income community college students among those that were identified. First, students are challenged to manage a limited cash flow that often comes in the form of a lump sum at the beginning of the semester or in early February as part
    of their tax refunds. Second, students lack a financial cushion to absorb the shocks of a medical bill or a needed car repair. The only alternative they may have is to drop out of school in order to increase their work hours. Finally, students pay more for financial services because of either a lack of a credit history or a low credit score. Because credit scores are now used by employers and landlords, students with poor credit may be rejected for employment or housing. Consequently, WSSN created a list of potential solutions and developed a framework for prototyping potential interventions to address the aforementioned challenges

  • This infographic describes the Working Student Success Network.

    Resource Files

    wssn_infographic.pdf1.7 MB
  • The integrated services strategy that is central to the WSSN model was developed to help low-income students reach financial stability and move up the economic ladder by promoting an innovative framework that integrates and bundles three distinct but related services:

    •   Education and employment advancement
    •   Income and work supports
    •   Financial services and asset building

    Strategies that ensure the scalability and sustainability of this integrated support services model help colleges build their capacity to support a student-focused culture in each of ATD’s Institutional Capacity Framework areas. These strategies reflect the collective learnings of WSSN colleges, state partners, and ATD facilitators.

    Resource Files

    wssn_sustainability_strategies.pdf530.35 KB
  • Millions of Americans are struggling financially, including more than seven million community college students. Unlike their traditional counterparts at four-year institutions, community college students often juggle family responsibilities, several jobs, and other personal demands. These students are more likely to be immigrants, underemployed, and the first generation in their families to go to college. The financial complexities of their lives can be overwhelming and may have negative consequences for achieving their academic goals.

    Through formal and informal surveys of administrators, faculty, and students, as well as secondary research, Achieving the Dream (ATD), a national community college reform network, and the Center for Financial Services Innovation (CFSI), an authority on consumer financial health, have identified three prominent financial health challenges that community college students face.

    Challenge One: Managing Cash Flow and Income Volatility. Juggling multiple income streams alongside irregular and often unexpected expenses makes money management an overwhelming task for anyone, and particularly for those who are also trying to focus on academics.

    Challenge Two: Lacking a Financial Cushion. Without a cushion of savings, many community college students are one financial emergency away from dropping out and struggling to return to college.

    Challenge Three: Accessing and Building Credit. Community college students, like other consumers, rely on access to credit to manage cash flows, fill short-term gaps, and pursue long-term opportunities. However many students have thin, or damaged credit files, forcing them to rely on high-cost, and sometimes predatory, loans.

    Students who are struggling financially can improve their financial health and ultimately impact their academic success. In fact, financial health, defined as what comes about when daily systems help a person or family build resilience and pursue opportunities, must be seen as an integral component of student success. Through cross-sector partnerships, collective investments, and internal commitments, colleges have an opportunity to offer services that will improve their students’ financial well-being. Achieving the Dream is committed to promoting and supporting efforts that improve student success based on knowledge emerging from its Working Students Success Network (WSSN), a group of 19 colleges working under ATD’s leadership to help low-income students build financial stability and prepare to move up the economic ladder. The WSSN has advanced an innovative framework that strategically integrates and bundles three distinct but related services: education and employment advancement, income and work supports, and financial services and asset building.

    Integrated efforts, bolstered by products and services like those described in this report, can be powerful tools for creating long-term student success. Fortunately, an increasing number of providers are innovating and designing with consumer success in mind. Yet navigating this landscape can be difficult for those without expertise in financial products. In this report, CFSI uses its Compass Principles, guidelines prepared for the U.S. financial services industry, which affirm standards of excellence in the design and delivery of basic tools that people use to manage their daily financial lives.

    Because financial products and services are generally not designed uniquely for the community college student, the entire financial services ecosystem was reviewed to identify products and services that would meet students’ needs. The tools are meant to be illustrative only and do not constitute an endorsement of a particular product, provider, or program. Students and colleges should ensure they understand any associated fees with any financial product they choose to use.

    Read the full report below.

    Resource Files

  • Two years into the WSSN initiative, reports from the colleges involved and evaluations from our partners reveal that for campuses that have implemented the approach with the greatest fidelity, WSSN is a catalyst for culture change, an integrated hub of service delivery, and a data-driven approach leading to better monitoring and increased success for low- income students.

    While the WSSN initiative has led to essential services being provided to tens of thousands of low-income students, more important is its role as a catalyst for long-term institutional change and capacity building. Specifically, the WSSN initiative has led to three major changes:

    1. Changing institutional culture
    2. Effectively bundling both low- and high-touch services
    3. Improved data collection and analysis systems

    Read more, including case studies from successful WSSN colleges, in the brief below.

  • A new report from CLASP analyzes how students were served by Benefits Access for College Completion (BACC), a 2.5-year initiative designed to increase access to public benefits (such as SNAP or Medicaid) for eligible low-income students. These crucial supports reduce students’ unmet financial needs and help them finish school.

    Launched in 2011, BACC funded seven community colleges to develop and implement sustainable policies and practices for embedding benefits access strategies into their operations. CLASP’s report, Lessons Learned from a Community College Initiative to Help Low-Income Students, outlines challenges and successes experienced by college sites as well as statewide systems. 

    Among colleges participating in BACC, no two institutions employed the same benefit access strategy. However, all the institutions found that increasing access to public benefits was more effective when combined with other services in which students already engage, such as financial aid, counseling, and advising. In addition, CLASP found that colleges’ success with integrating and sustaining benefits depended on: 

    The role of institutional leadership in fostering buy-in success;

    • Changes in student flow and business processes;
    • Actions to overcome cultural barriers within the institution;
    • The capacity to produce and use data;
    • The importance of collaboration and teamwork within the colleges;
    • New relationships with local and state benefits agencies; and
    • The need to overcome student stigma.
    • Drawing on data from an evaluation of BACC, the report also demonstrates how increased access to benefits improves student progress toward degree completion. This is especially true for students who bundle multiple benefits while enrolled.

    The success of CLASP’s BACC initiative confirms the importance of public benefits for low-income students. By reducing unmet financial need, these supports help students complete school and enter the workforce. Institutions themselves also benefit through higher completion rates. Federal and state policymakers should leverage the lessons of BACC to better align public benefits and financial aid rules, as well as ensure postsecondary attendance is supported by public benefits programs, to help low-income students build skills, obtain credentials, and succeed in today’s economy. 

  • All WFSNCC colleges are required to submit yearly narrative and budget reports. The narrative and budget are an opportunity to consider your institution’s WFSNCC work over the past year and to plan for the coming year. Your institution’s reflection helps inform Achieving the Dream’s WFSNCC work as we work to support all colleges as they implement and scale the WFSNCC strategy. This report also helps to build our knowledge of the institutional change process. The deadline for these reports vary depending on the phase the college entered the initiative. For institutions that joined WFSNCC in 2014, the narrative and budget are due on July 31, 2015.

    To complete the WFSNCC Narrative, your institution should engage a representative group of the WFSNCC team to review and discuss the institution’s progress on strategy implementation. This discussion will be helpful as you complete the narrative.

    Please complete the WFSNCC Budget Template. Please note that the template asks you to report on direct and indirect expenses, as well as match funds raised for the grant’s match requirement. Please refer to Section I Subsection F and Section XI Subsection D of the grant agreement for the project match requirements. For the fundraising component of the budget, please indicate any institutional funds your college reallocated to support WFSNCC efforts or any funds received from an external source. Please provide a brief summary in the notes section of the budget template that generally describes the source and uses of match funding (the notes section is equivalent to a budget narrative).

    Please submit the budget in xls or xlsx format. The narrative may be submitted in either doc, docx, or pdf format.  Please submit your narrative and budget report via email to

    Please contact Julian Haynes or Elyssa Shildneck at


    Resource Files

  • Achieving the Dream hosts a series of webinars for colleges participating in the Working Families Success Network in Community Colleges (WFSNCC) Expansion Initiative. These webinars span a variety of topics ranging from public benefits to financial products. Below please find the PowerPoint Presentations used during these webinars. Please visit the WFSNCC playlist on Achieving the Dream's YouTube Channel to view the recordings of these webinars. 

    If you are interesting in hosting or attending a webinar relevant to WFSNCC or the WFSN strategy please email

  • The implementation plan serves as an action plan for integration and implementation of the WFSNCC strategy as an institution wide approach to serving low-income community college students and their families. As colleges implement their plans, they are expected to begin with scale and sustainability in mind. As a result, this plan will be a guiding tool throughout the next three years as the college progresses from implementation to scaling, and ultimately institutionalization.

    This plan should emphasize the goal of transforming the institution’s culture and operations to holistically support low-income students and include plans for leadership engagement and commitment to the WFSNCC strategy. The implementation plan should align with each college’s respective logic model and support the college in reaching the outputs, outcomes, and impacts outlined in that logic model.

    Each college will demonstrate how issues of equity will be intentionally integrated through culturally sensitive engagement of students and training for faculty and staff. Equity is a critical focus of WFSNCC and colleges are expected to serve a diverse population of low-income students and a significant percentage of students of color.

    The implementation plan will specify how the college will implement WFSNCC services to support the needs of an increasing number of low-income students by providing a variety of both high- and low-touch services. Colleges will identify the services that will be implemented or expanded to support students in each of the three core WFSNCC core service areas and plan for internal and external partnerships that can be leveraged to support service delivery.

    The implementation plan will also describe a plan for data collection, reporting, and information sharing to strengthen the evidence base for WFSNCC. This plan should show how the institution will seek to improve and streamline systems, and engage institutional leaders in support of culture change and sustainability.

    Completing this plan is critical for successful WFSNCC implementation and will serve as an important element in identifying and aligning the right combination of technical assistance needs of each institution.

    Implementation Plan Review Process:

    Assigned WFSNCC coaches will provide feedback on the logic models to help guide implementation plan development. The same coaches will provide scheduled and as needed support to colleges as they work on their implementation plans. ATD, in consultation with the coaches, will connect colleges to a team of technical assistance providers ready to provide content specific support on issues such as culture change, benefits access, partnerships and more. Throughout the planning process ATD will host webinars, share resources, and identify a variety of other ways to be proactive about ensuring that the colleges have the needed resources to successfully implement and work toward scaling WFSNCC. 

    Draft Due: November 14, 2014
    Extended Deadline-Final Draft Due: January 31, 2015

  • The following resources where shared during the 2014 WFSN Inaugural Forum, an event that served as the kickoff institute for the 16 colleges participating in the WFSN Expansion Initiative. If you have any questions about the materials below please email:

  • This new initiative to expand the Working Families Success Network (WFSN) in up to 18 colleges in four states by bringing colleges together and integrating access to a full range of services and supports to help students.  These student supports and services include access to financial aid, public benefits and other resources, improve their financial knowledge, budgeting skills and choice of financial products, and develop and implement achievable career plans, putting students on a path to completing their college-level study and achieving economic self-sufficiency.

  • This implementation guide is designed to be used by community college leaders, faculty and staff who are interested in starting or expanding a Working Families Success effort at their institution. The guide can be read from start to finish or accessed at different points depending how far along your college is.

    Resource Files

    WFSN Implementation Guide.pdf1023.43 KB

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