Step Six

Provide non-academic assistance


Educational success isn’t limited to what happens in the classroom or lab. Students don’t learn well when they are hungry or worried about child care or paying rent or where they are going to sleep. Local partnerships can help address these problems in a variety of ways. For instance, colleges can consider forgiving some student debt. Employers can alter their tuition policies so they provide the tuition funds upfront—at the time of enrollment.

The fact is, any number of obstacles, small and large, keep students from starting and finishing a degree or certificate program. Seek out those obstacles and eliminate what you can.

Help with basic needs

According to a recent study by Temple University, 45 percent of students at 100 institutions had experienced food insecurity in the past month. Housing insecurity afflicted 18 percent of students at two-year colleges and 14 percent of students at four-year institutions. Here are some of the ways communities are addressing these and other needs:

  • Cincinnati’s Brighton Center pulls together a wealth of services to support entire families, providing them with housing assistance, mental health services, food, addiction recovery, early childhood education, and much more. Taking a holistic, two-generation approach, the Northern Kentucky Scholar House provides affordable residences to single parents enrolled in education beyond high school. The goal is to prepare the adults for the workforce while setting up children up for success in school. While enrolled at Scholar House, parents also get help with food stamps, work-study programs, financial aid, and life skills.
  • In Corpus Christi, Citizens for Educational Excellence delivers numerous coordinated social services to students and prospective students through a one-stop center at a local shopping mall.
  • Boston’s Bunker Hill Community College has a one-stop office that connects low-income students with state and federal financial assistance (including food stamps) and community partners who provide donated food items, emergency gift cards, and on-campus meal vouchers. A food pantry provides fresh vegetables and fruit. A “hunger team” at the college also works to raise public awareness, advocating for solutions to the problem throughout higher education. Boston’s GRAD Last Mile Fund supports local college students with up to $2,500 in their final semester, covering non-academic expenses such as transportation, rent, childcare, medical care, and other unexpected costs. A local foundation has seeded the program at five institutions with the hope that other funders will follow suit.
  • In Fresno, California, where more than half of students answering a survey reported food insecurities, colleges are opening food pantries and working on ways to best serve the many students who also struggle to pay for housing. At its pantries, Fresno State University and Fresno City College also provide necessities like diapers, clothes, and baby food for students who are parents. Fresno City College has formed a workgroup of students, faculty, and staff to explore ways to address housing and other challenges. And low-income students at Clovis Community College can take advantage of free shuttle service to Fresno.

Forgive (some) debt

Low-income students have many ways to reduce the cost of college, including loans, need-based scholarships, and federal grants. But a great number of students still fall through the cracks, and responsibility for even a fraction of college costs keeps many students from earning their degrees. Some leave college with small unpaid balances. To bring these “stop-outs” back to campus, or allow them to transfer, your colleges should consider forgiving small debts.

Here are some ways institutions are doing that:

  • Wayne State University in Detroit waives past-due balances of up to $1,500 for students who left in good academic standing. It’s a win for the college, as well: For the relatively small cost of a debt that the college has likely already written off, it can bring in $13,000 in tuition revenue. The program has caught the interest of Florida Gulf Coast University, which has worked with Wayne State to implement it.
  • In New York, a foundation supporting CUNY’s Borough of Manhattan Community College has offered grants that help pay down half of a student’s outstanding balances so they can return to school. Eligible students must be on track to graduate in two semesters, attend a financial seminar, and create a plan to pay the rest of the balance. In 2018, 60 students were awarded grants, and 78 percent re-enrolled or graduated.
  • At the CUNY School of Professional Studies, grants have gone to students with bursar holds who were experiencing personal or family hardships. Last spring, 13 out of the 14 recipients successfully completed the program, four out of 13 graduated, and six out of the nine remaining recipients remain enrolled. John Jay College has reached out to low-income students who have completed at least 105 credits, offering a free course and a forgiven balance up to a certain amount. (For more, see “Learn Fast, Fail Fast” below.)

Break down other barriers

Numerous other obstacles, small and large, keep students from starting and finishing a degree or certificate program. Your community might take a cue from what others are doing:

  • Richmond has taken the simple step of eliminating the need to formally apply for graduation. Students now need only complete the necessary number of credits and other requirements. Fresno is continuing its efforts to increase the number of students who complete the FAFSA form to ensure that they get the funds they need to complete their degrees. (Financial aid covers the entire cost for roughly 60 percent of the students at Cal State Fresno, and 70 percent of students at Fresno City College receive Pell Grants.) Community partners have held FAFSA and financial literacy events and are building awareness through public service ads.
  • Los Angeles college partners are looking at how to give students a second chance through grade forgiveness—the practice, after a student has retaken a course, of replacing an existing (poor) grade with a new (better) one when calculating the student’s GPA. Poor course grades have proven to be handicaps for students who might otherwise be granted a reverse transfer. California State University Northridge now grants transfer students academic credit for equivalent courses, but it doesn’t typically let students replace grades from the original Cal State courses. Students who have been dismissed from majors with strict GPA minimums usually can’t re-enlist. Collaborating on new processes, community college and university faculty have identified systemic barriers and worked with leaders to dissolve them.
  • Detroit’s Macomb Community College is piloting a “Second Chance” program that provides six-credit scholarships for students who have stopped out for at least two years, and whose GPAs fall just below the standard for “satisfactory academic progress.” (Conversely, to speed the path to completion, Las Vegas partner institutions have considered charging an extra fee per course for credits beyond what a student needs for graduation.)

Move from tuition reimbursement to tuition payment

Many employers will repay some or all of tuition costs for courses that are aligned with their workplace demands. In the usual arrangement, the employee pays for the course and is reimbursed by the employer after completing it. In addition to the obvious benefits for students, tuition reimbursement helps employers attract talent, reduce turnover, and cut taxes. The problem is that the student often struggles to pay the upfront cost and must wait many months for reimbursement. A better approach is for the employer to pay from the start.