“It’s hard to focus on your studies when you don’t have a place to lay your head at night,” says Greene-Hicks, whose job as the university’s community outreach coordinator is to try and break down the barriers faced by students face. They were able to get the student an affordable apartment through a nonprofit organization in Lynchburg, connect her to a federal program to help her buy food, and show her that her student card allows her free bus rides to school and to work.
“You can imagine how worried you are and how anxious you might be if 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 offer students and simplifying the process of getting help. 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.
College enrollment drops for third year in a row since pandemic
A national survey of community college students published in October by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin found that 1 in 5 had cut or skipped meals in the previous month because of cost, and more than a quarter were unable to eat. pay their rent or mortgage.
And while college enrollments fell across the country during the pandemic, the declines were especially large at community colleges, where many students juggle their educational and career aspirations with financial and other burdens.
The large decline in the number of enrollments at community colleges continues
The pandemic exacerbated many of the challenges students already faced, such as mental health or caring for an elderly relative, said Van Wilson, interim senior vice chancellor of academic and staff programs at Virginia’s Community Colleges.
And while many four-year colleges have built significant support into campus life, such as student health centers, housing, meals, and counseling services, community colleges have typically been unable to provide those.
“But the needs are the same,” Wilson said. “This is what drives the need to find partnerships across the community and across the country to build that support structure because our students need the same things.”
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Single Stop is an online screening tool that can quickly match students with federal, state, and local aid, asking 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 using it statewide. The help could include help applying for Medicaid, mental health counseling, child care vouchers, help preparing and filing taxes — or money 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 have received more than $21 million in benefits, according to Virginia’s Community Colleges.
Lauren Chase, who studies business and education at Central Virginia Community College in Lynchburg, asked to volunteer and landed a work-study job to help students with the school’s food supply at the campus’ student center — which has been renamed the Central Grab -n-Go.
When Greene-Hicks took the job as community outreach coordinator, she decided the food supply needed help, including a paint job. “It just seemed like a stuffy warehouse to me,” she said. “You want to get your food from somewhere that looks nice, not stuffy and dark.”
Now anyone can come 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 times people are surprised to find they qualify for help they didn’t know was there.
“It’s badly needed,” Chase said.
She said students have told her that the food and other benefits have helped them stay in school. Sometimes students burst into tears, thankful for the help.
“I’ve been helped in the past,” Chase said. “It is important to me to help others to become the best version of themselves.”
Sometimes students find themselves eligible for aid that was previously denied, unaware of rule changes such as an expansion of student food aid 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 truly believe that programs like these can change students’ lives,” said Chase, “and give them the opportunity to do more with their lives than they ever thought possible.”