By Sara Marcellino, Development Officer for the Contra Costa College Foundation, is a guest contributor for the College Promise Campaign
A college education is an increasingly critical piece of becoming part of the American middle class. It is often noted that by 2020 65% of jobs in the United States will require some form of postsecondary education, whether be it a four-year degree, associate’s degree, or job training program. For people without a college education, the risk of falling behind is real—and unfortunately increasing.
Yet, it is that very financial insecurity that keeps so many from staying in school.
One recent study found that 52% of community college students faced uncertain access to food. A full 20% in the same study had struggled with actual hunger in the previous 30 days. Over half were unsure of their ability to pay for housing. An astonishing 13% were homeless.
Little wonder, then, that students from families in the highest income quartile are six times more likely to graduate than students whose families fell into the bottom. Too many American college students are being forced to miss class or even drop out entirely because of financial emergencies relating to things like healthcare, childcare, rent, utilities, or transportation.
That’s why the Contra Costa College Foundation began working one year ago, in partnership with Contra Costa College, the community college we serve in the San Francisco Bay Area, to change this trajectory for our students. We have created a Wrap-Around Fund to address financial crises that might otherwise force students to drop out. Last month, we launched.
I currently serve as Development Officer for the Contra Costa College Foundation (CCCF). 81% of our students come from low- or lower-middle income households. We know all too well that when good students are held back by bad situations, educators can find themselves powerless to help.
The response to our new Wrap-Around program has been immediate and hugely rewarding. In the two weeks since the program began, we have made contact with 45 students in crisis, cut our first ten checks, and been rewarded with four letters of gratitude—a critical component of the program that allows us to share its impact in the words of the student recipient with current and future investors in the fund.
The Wrap-Around application process is fairly simple. If an otherwise dedicated student suddenly goes missing from class or confides in struggling to continue, faculty members, or college counselors are encouraged to intervene. If the cause is a financial emergency, that instructor or staff member can recommend the student to the Financial Aid Department via a quick note, which then results in a private link sent to the student to apply for emergency cash assistance.
Many kinds of emergencies qualify. For example, one student recently found himself unable to commute to class because his car was in need of repair. Thanks to this support, we were able to help him out. If this had happened a year ago, he may well have had to drop out.
Of course, once the student completes the application, counselors work to verify that the need is legitimate. Currently, we have a team of four reviewers—primarily from our counseling department—trained and ready to review the applications. If there are questions regarding the legitimacy of a request, other reviewers can be brought in to help. We try to do all of this within 48 hours of receipt.
Once an application is reviewed, the Financial Aid team sends a request to us at the Foundation, and we then cut the check and follow up with the student.
Our goal is to get the money into the student’s hands within ten days of contact. Sometimes we get there sooner.
We know we can’t solve some of the underlying problems for our students, but we can help students in crisis stay in class and on track to meet their educational goals. While our nascent program hasn’t had time to build a track record of its own, 95% of students who benefitted from similar programs finished the semester and 88% returned to school for the next. That is a goal we want for our program, too, so stay tuned.
The program is also far from comprehensive. I like to think of it as one spoke on a wheel, working in concert with financial aid, the career center, our Promise program and many other student services that together begin to form the kind of wrap-around support services that schools need to catch up with the realities facing so many of their students.
Of course, there is also a fundraising component of the program. Our hope is to help 200 students stay in school each year. If each one received the maximum of $500, that would mean raising $100,000 annually. We’re going to need plenty of help, but I am confident that we can do it. Our Fund commenced with $60,000, raised on the concept alone, and mostly from community leaders who simply believed in what we were doing.
Overall, it has been a thrill to see this come to life. I, for one, would love to see more programs like ours around the country. I believe that people and organizations will stand up to support them, just as they have here.
And I believe that no one’s education should be sidelined or ended by an unexpected $300 bill. An education lifts up a student and his or her community, too. An education is something no one can take away from you—and that’s priceless.