“It’s hard to focus on your studies if you don’t have a place to lay your head at night,” said Greene-Hicks, whose job as the college’s community connections coordinator is to try to dismantle barriers students face. They were able to get the student an affordable apartment through a nonprofit group in Lynchburg, connect her to a federal program to help her buy food, and show her that with her student ID, she could ride the bus to school and to work free.
“You can just imagine how worried you are and how anxious you could be when you just don’t know what might happen the next day,” Greene-Hicks said. “Now she can focus on the things she wants to focus on, achieve her goals.”
Virginia’s community colleges are expanding the help they provide students and simplifying the process for getting aid. It’s a response they hope will combat some of the financial and emotional pressures of the pandemic and inflation and help people stay in school.
A national survey of community college students by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin that was published in October found that 1 in 5 had cut back on meals or skipped them in the previous month because of costs and that more than a quarter were unable to pay their rent or mortgage.
And while college enrollment dropped across the country during the pandemic, the declines were especially stark at community colleges, where many students are juggling their educational and career aspirations with financial and other burdens.
The pandemic exacerbated many of the challenges students were already facing, such as with mental health or needing to care for an elderly family member, said Van Wilson, interim senior vice chancellor of academic and workforce programs with Virginia’s Community Colleges.
And while many four-year colleges have significant supports built into campus life, such as student health centers, housing, meals and counseling services, community colleges typically haven’t been able to provide those.
“But the needs are the same,” Wilson said. “This is what drives that necessity to find partnerships across the community and across the country to build that support structure, because our students need the same things.”
Single Stop is an online screening tool that can quickly link students to federal, state and local aid, with questions about household size, income and location. A few years ago, only a couple of community colleges in Virginia used it. In 2020, the system began adopting it statewide. The help could include assistance applying for Medicaid, mental health counseling, child-care vouchers, assistance preparing and filing taxes — or cash from a campus emergency fund to help fix a flat tire.
This year, since January, it has been used by more than 9,700 Virginia students who received more than $21 million in benefits, according to Virginia’s Community Colleges.
Lauren Chase, who is studying business administration and education at Central Virginia Community College in Lynchburg, asked for volunteer opportunities and was given a work-study job helping students at the school’s food pantry in the campus student center — which has been rebranded as the Central Grab-n-Go.
When Greene-Hicks took the job as the community connections coordinator, she decided the food pantry needed help, including a paint job. “It just looked like a dank warehouse to me,” she said. “You want to get your food from somewhere that looks nice, not somewhere dank and dark.”
Now anyone can stop by and select what they need from the shelves, from canned fruit to soup to toothbrushes. When new students come in, Chase asks them to fill out the Single Stop, and often people are surprised to find they qualify for aid they didn’t know was out there.
“It’s very much needed,” Chase said.
She said students have told her the food and other benefits have helped them stay in school. Sometimes students come to tears, grateful for the help.
“I’ve been helped in the past,” Chase said. “I think it’s important to help others achieve their best version of themselves.”
At times, students find they qualify for aid that had previously been denied, unaware of rule changes such as an expansion of food assistance for college students in 2021, Greene-Hicks said.
Virginia’s Community Colleges recently announced a grant to expand aid to schools in a rural area that stretches like a horseshoe from Virginia’s Eastern Shore through Southside and southwestern Virginia and up the Shenandoah Valley. The 14 schools there will benefit from a $125,000 grant from the Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield Foundation to promote Single Stop.
“I really do believe that programs like this can change students’ lives,” Chase said, “and give them the opportunity to do more with their life than they ever thought they could.”