“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 the barriers that students face. They were able to offer the student an affordable apartment through a non-profit group in Lynchburg, connect her with a federal program to help her buy food, and show her that with her student card, she could take the bus to school and work for free.
“You can just imagine how worried you are and how anxious you might 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, achieving her goals.”
Virginia Community Colleges are expanding the aid they provide to students and simplifying the process of 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 investigation community college students by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin which was published in October found that one in five had reduced or skipped meals in the previous month due to cost and that more a quarter were unable to pay their rent or mortgage.
And while college enrollment has plummeted across the country during the pandemic, declines have been particularly steep at community colleges, where many students are juggling academic and career aspirations with financial and other burdens.
The pandemic has exacerbated many of the challenges students were already facing, such as mental health or the need to care for an elderly family member, said Van Wilson, acting senior vice chancellor of academic programs and Virginia community college workforce.
And while many four-year colleges have important supports built into campus life, such as student health centers, housing, meals, and counseling services, community colleges have generally not been in able to provide them.
“But the needs are the same,” Wilson said. “That’s what drives this need to find partnerships in 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 connect students to federal, state, and local aid, with questions about household size, income, and location. A few years ago, only a few community colleges in Virginia used it. In 2020, the system began adopting it statewide. Help could include assistance applying for Medicaid, mental health counseling, childcare vouchers, help preparing and filing taxes — or money from an emergency fund campus to help fix a flat tire.
This year, since January, it has been used by more than 9,700 Virginia students who have 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, applied for volunteer opportunities and was given a work-study job helping students in the school pantry in the campus student center – which has been renamed Central Take-Out.
When Greene-Hicks accepted the position of Community Connections Coordinator, she decided the pantry needed help, including a paint job. “It felt like a wet warehouse to me,” she said. “You want to get your food somewhere that looks nice, not somewhere damp and dark.”
Now anyone can stop and select what they need from the shelves, from canned fruit to soup to toothbrushes. When new students arrive, Chase asks them to fill out the one-stop shop, and often people are surprised to find they’re entitled to help they didn’t know existed.
“It’s really needed,” Chase said.
She said students told her the food and other benefits helped them stay in school. Sometimes students burst into tears, grateful for the help.
“I’ve had help in the past,” Chase said. “I think it’s important to help others achieve their best version of themselves.”
Sometimes students realize that they are entitled to help that was previously denied to them, without knowing rule changes such as an expansion of student food aid in 2021, Greene-Hicks said.
Virginia Community Colleges recently announced a grant to expand assistance to schools in a rural area that stretches like a horseshoe from the eastern Virginia coast through southern and southwestern Virginia and to 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 truly believe programs like this can change the lives of students,” Chase said, “and empower them to do more with their lives than they ever thought they could.”