Community colleges are banding resources together to secure their at-risk students’ education

"So many of our students are what we might consider one minor emergency away from walking away from this campus and never coming back," says Susan Burleson, executive vice president of academic and student affairs at Davidson-Davie Community College.

Emergency federal aid during the pandemic helped keep millions of students enrolled. Of the $76.2 billion allocated by Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds, about half went toward students directly and 80% of Pell Grant recipients received aid, averaging $2,000 apiece.

But with the well of federal relief aid expired, community colleges that have historically served the nation’s most underresourced populations have been forced to cull together various resources to keep their at-risk students from stopping out and regain those lost due to finances.

“So many of our students are what we might consider one minor emergency away from walking away from this campus and never coming back,” says Susan Burleson, executive vice president of academic and student affairs at Davidson-Davie Community College. “Sometimes it’s a flat tire, sometimes it’s childcare.”

HEERF, a grant package under the American Rescue Plan, allowed institutions to wipe out entire student due balances while reducing class materials costs. Davidson-Davie Community College, one of the 58 schools in the North Carolina Community College System, has partnered with multiple nonprofits and foundations to fill the gaps and keep students from going under.

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The community college utilizes the national nonprofit Single Stop to screen students needing financial assistance, connecting them with resources such as SNAP food stamps, Medicaid, tax credits, child care and emergency utility services. While Single Stop rarely provides more than $1,000 in student grants, this amount is usually enough to signal the difference between students who reenroll and those who stop out, Burleson says.

Aside from financial compensation, Single Stop also provides Davidson Davie with legal consultation for free or reduced rates, which can help cushion at-risk students facing speeding tickets or other complex issues. In January, the college will provide tax services to help students build proactive financial lessons.

“I think [Single Stop] is instrumental in keeping our students,” she says.

For students who have fallen through the cracks and stopped out, Davidson Davie works with two organizations that help reengage and turn them back to school: NC Reconnect and InsideTrack. The two have worked in tandem with leadership, faculty, staff and adult learners to understand the needs of this student cohort.

InsideTrack pairs at-risk students facing financial crises with on-demand coaching support and emergency microgrants that can go toward utility bills, diapers and wipes for student parents, digital textbooks, educational software licensing and even housing and transportation. With an average grant amount of around $230, InsideTrack recently helped a Davidson Davie stopout pay her water and electric bill, Burleson says.

Davidson Davie even helped a star student who lost her job and owed around $4,500 in past due rent pay the bill, thanks to resources from SingleStop and NC Reconnect.

“We’re really able to braid resources to help students above and beyond,” Burleson says.

Illinois Central College has also recently taken support from InsideTrack to engage stopped-out learners post-pandemic. ICC has provided the organization with a list of over 3,000 stopped-out students they can attempt to reconnect with. In Emily Points’ time as the dean of students, she realized that those who stopped out for more than two semesters were most prominently due to financial reasons.

“A lot of them are trying to keep their electricity on, pay that house payment or apartment, support their kids, get food on the table,” says Points, now the dean of enrollment services at ICC. “We’re trying to minimize that payment to help those students.”

Aside from InsideTrack’s microgrant program, ICC provides students who owe past due balances with extended payment plans to keep them retained and on track to graduate. One of their stopped-out students got in a bad car accident that precluded him from welding. After speaking with advisors at ICC, they broke down his $500 balance into an appropriate payment plan, and he has since been offered a position upon graduation.

ICC has been able to bring back 10% of its stopped-out students over its last three outreach projects dating back to the 2021-21 academic year, thanks to the help from InsideTrack in recovering them, Point says.

“We’re trying to help that student who has 45 hours and needs 60 hours to graduate. Some are that close,” she says. “Just encouraging them to get that credential to improve their job and wages so they can support their family goes a long way. Education will help them.”

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and first-generation journalism graduate from the University of Florida. His beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador and Brazil.

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