Students attending community colleges often face financial and other hurdles to completing school. These challenges include balancing work and school priorities, managing finances, raising children, or supporting themselves and their families. In order to help students handle these challenges, Single Stop developed a program that provides a comprehensive approach to assisting students, beyond the support offered by colleges in the past. By providing multiple, integrated services at school sites, Single Stop, in partnership with the community colleges that house the program, can address many student needs by linking students and their families to multiple health and human services programs. Rather than focusing solely on educational financial assistance, narrowly defined as under traditional college student aid programs, Single Stop considers the student’s needs more broadly. The program assesses whether students qualify for different government assistance programs, provides legal assistance when needed, and furnishes financial counseling to help students and their families on limited budgets meet household needs.
Beginning with a single school in 2009, this program expanded to 17 colleges in seven states by 2012, helping more than 32,000 students receive more than $60 million in benefits and services.70 Single Stop continues to expand the number of community colleges it serves.
In its earliest form, the program relied on a community group to coordinate program activities. However, Single Stop’s process for selecting schools and administering the program has evolved over time. Single Stop now works with the Association of Community College Trustees to identify potential new sites and to foster relationships with school chancellors. Single Stop assesses each candidate school’s capacity to administer the program, readiness to make changes, and other key features of the local environment. This environmental scan determines, among other things, whether similar services are already being provided by other organizations, what public benefits are available in that particular state and locality, and the students’ need for services. If Single Stop and the school decide that the community college will act as a new site, they enter into a contract that requires the school to hire a site coordinator. Single Stop then works with local organizations and contracts with a financial advisor, legal counselor, and tax service provider. While the school directly hires the site coordinator, Single Stop provides initial staff training as well as ongoing training and support, with the goal of program institutionalization.71 Single Stop generally provides initial funding to cover the costs, with the schools contributing more funding over time and eventually paying most program costs. As colleges see the program achieving positive results, they often invest increasing amounts of their own resources to build capacity and raise these initiatives’ visibility. Because they are strongly embraced by college leadership, these programs become institutionalized as an ongoing part of college life, which increases students’ willingness to use the services they offer.
In practice, Single Stop typically begins its work with a student who is facing a particular challenge that is brought to the attention of school officials, such as a threatened eviction. It often becomes clear that the student’s struggles are not limited to that single “presenting issue.” A student experiencing one financial challenge often faces other challenges as well, such as food insecurity, debt and legal issues, or an inability to afford health care. Rather than just address the single “presenting” issue, Single Stop recognizes potential overlapping needs that cross many assistance programs. Students are often unaware of many available services and may not seek this information on their own. By educating students about these programs and helping them apply, Single Stop leads many students to obtain essential services for which they qualify.
Schools still commonly refer students to the Single Stop office when a specific financial issue arises. The Single Stop offices at the colleges are considered a part of the college, like other campus offices providing student services. Once students enter the Single Stop office, staff use the Benefit Enrollment Network (BEN), Single Stop’s online screening and eligibility determination tool, to collect the student’s information, quickly assess the student’s needs, and identify the benefits for which the student may qualify.
Staff then explain the different benefits for which the student appears to qualify. Whenever possible, the program helps the student apply electronically for benefits. If electronic applications are not possible—for example, because a certain program does not allow on-line applications—the site coordinator helps the student to apply in-person for benefits. Caseworkers make sure the students have all of the necessary forms, direct the student to the appropriate social services office, and in some cases even provide transportation. To facilitate this process, site coordinators often develop relationships with the local offices administering applicable benefit programs.72 In some cases, local social service agency staff visit the college to help students and their families enroll.
Much of Single Stop’s work, including the community college program, is funded through grants from the Robin Hood Foundation and other philanthropies. Single Stop also received two grants (the first for $1.1 million and the second for $1 million, with a match from the Community College of Philadelphia) from the White House’s Social Innovation Fund. Single Stop in turn provides grants to the program sites and seeks additional support from the host colleges and local community organizations. While philanthropic funding helps start the program at community college sites, the colleges themselves contribute significant funding, which grows over time.73