Strategy 3: Build internal and external partnerships

Collaborating with groups inside and outside the institution can complement current programming and fill gaps in services designed to assist low-income students. Given the increasing demands on today’s students, growing concerns about accountability for student outcomes, and shrinking postsecondary budgets, it is increasingly important that postsecondary institutions look for partners to address the challenges faced by low-income students.

Institutions can leverage partners’ expertise to reduce the need to design new services, to create stronger infrastructure and accountability for low-income student success, and to achieve shared goals. Further, institutions doing a better-than-average job of enrolling and graduating low-income students credit cross-campus collaboration, interdepartmental communication, and strong community partnerships as essential for student success.29

At postsecondary institutions, faculty, administrators, and students represent a variety of disciplines and skills that can help provide support for low-income students. For example:

  • Accounting and business programs can provide financial literacy services and tax assistance.
  • Dentistry programs can provide subsidized health assistance.
  • Automotive technology programs can provide subsidized auto repair.
  • Food, nutrition, and culinary studies programs can provide cooking demonstrations using food pantry items.
  • Law schools can provide pro bono legal assistance.
  • College/university foundations can secure external grants to support efforts to meet the needs of low-income students.

A program that reflects a deep level of internal institutional partnership is Dillard University’s “SAFE Fund.” The SAFE Fund, created by Dillard President Walter Kimbrough, contributes emergency funding to retain students who might otherwise be forced to leave school due to short-term financial hardship. The fund was established to aid students who, through no fault of their own, cannot afford the full cost of books, fees or housing, or who face an unexpected financial emergency. All Dillard students with a minimum 2.5 grade-point average may apply for the fund. The SAFE Fund operates with extensive collaboration across several offices, including student support services, the chaplain, and financial aid. These offices exchange information about the fund related to student risk factors that are embedded in Dillard’s retention plan. The SAFE Fund is supported with funds from the president’s office, the university foundation, private donors, and campus fundraisers.30

Supporting Postsecondary Student Success: A Tactical Guidebook urges colleges and universities to prevent low-income students from falling through the cracks by developing coalitions of organizations that seek to improve the well-being of these students.31 Building such partnerships among campus, civic, faith-based, and nonprofit organizations requires up-front effort and sustained commitment from institutions. However, such coalitions can reduce an institution’s long-term costs for providing support services through tuition paid by retained students.

A critical component in building these relationships is to bring partner organizations directly to campus. This not only improves students’ access to the services provided, it also makes it easier for faculty and staff to direct students to these services.

Like many community colleges across the nation, Central New Mexico Community College (CNM) collaborated with the United Way to run Voluntary Income Tax Assistance (VITA) centers. Through the partnership, CNM developed the Tax Help New Mexico program, which offers low-income New Mexicans free assistance in preparing and filing income tax returns. It does so by giving the college’s accounting students real-world experience in preparing taxes. Students earn college credit for their volunteer work while learning about the value of community service. Georgia State University partners with a national bank based in Atlanta to provide financial counseling to low-income students and their families. Bank employees volunteer their time, while students and their families gain valuable guidance in navigating the complicated financial decisions that accompany college enrollment.

By broadening community partnerships, institutions can enhance aid to low-income students. Bringing services directly to students can increase the likelihood of their use. Also, engaging faculty and staff can empower them to share these resources with their students. Note that while making services more available can increase the use of services, it is still critical to ensure that those services offer value to students.